By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The protesters had their signs turned the wrong way. So Claudia Balducci, chair of Sound Transit (ST)’s System Expansion Committee (SEC), said, “Please take the time to turn them this way so I can see them.” Then she laughed nervously as all the signs fluttered around to face her. “I appreciated that,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Thus, the July 14 meeting began in a tone that appeared to mark a new chapter between the Asian American community representing the Chinatown-International District (CID) and ST, which for over a half year has been laboring to engage the community as its board seeks to determine the appropriate placement of a new station.
The civility with which Balducci hosted the meeting appeared to create an atmosphere that encouraged community members to speak emotionally and seemed to represent an increasing sophistication of engagement between the two sides.
To be sure, the transit agency received over 5,000 comments during its formal public comment section, which ended April 28, and it has pledged to respond to them in the final environmental impact statement (EIS). It has also held five meetings to receive community comment on drafts of the EIS, as well as a slew of other activities, including an online open house engaging more than 19,500 online visitors, community briefings, office hours, workshops, advertisements, and social media postings to seek dialogue with the community.
But last week’s meeting was the first time that simultaneous interpreters for Cantonese and Mandarin were present. It also came after an in-person walking tour of the CID taken by Balducci and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott.
The atmosphere in the meeting room gradually grew more raucous, as speakers were applauded then cheered and finally greeted with both not only after their speeches but before.
At one point, Balducci gave extra time to a woman struggling to make her interpreter understand her instructions. As the woman tried to work out the flow of Chinese and English, Balducci apparently had the clock reset, then frozen, finally gently prodding her to wrap up her comments.
Community advocate and co-founder of Transit Equity for All (TEA) Betty Lau said she had written Balducci an email to thank her on behalf of the community. “The consideration shown,” she said, “was impressive.”
A new position
A shift had occurred in recent months from most community members supporting a station to be built on Fourth Avenue (ST offered only options involving Fourth and Fifth Avenues without a bypass option) to their current position: an all-out rejection of any station whatsoever in the CID.
But Balducci has encouraged community members to continue to come to meetings of the SEC and the entire board, although the formal comment deadline is passed.
“The board members will consider public comments along with their analysis of the Draft EIS in making a decision about a preferred alternative,” said public information officer Rachelle Cunningham.
There was indeed a lot to consider after the July 14 meeting. Speaker after speaker moved at a fast clip, fitting in oceans of comments about discrimination, inevitable loss, and a desire for safety, in one-minute time slots. A digital timer displayed the remaining seconds during each person’s turn, allowing many to adjust their cadence to fit in all their comments.
Some spoke remotely from COVID isolation or even from the emergency room.
For the most part, speakers asked for a new plan that would place a station outside the CID.
It was not clear if this was in the cards.
In a motion, the SEC voted to send to the board for consideration on July 28, a “Fourth Avenue shallow tunnel option” was specifically named. But the language was slightly ambiguous and still seems to retain the bare possibility of an outlier reversal to choose a location outside the CID.
The motion indicated that future alternatives should “include concepts requested by community and agency partners.” These should include “but were not limited to” the Fourth Avenue option.
The motion also enjoins a report to be delivered to the board no later than February 2023 about further “studies” to be undertaken and further “public engagement.”
Shortly before the SEC meeting, the Seattle City Council passed a joint resolution with Mayor Bruce Harrell, also a ST board member, calling on the agency to more “fully address the community’s concerns with existing alternatives.”
The resolution, however, mentions only developing “modifications” to the “Fourth and Fifth Avenue alternatives” to reduce community impact.
It does not refer to the current position endorsed by most community members who turned out for the meeting—that ST bypass the CID entirely.
A show of opposition
The meeting had the largest show of community participants of any such venue since ST returned to an in-person format, according to the agency. During approximately 30 minutes, a flurry of comments protesting the current options erupted.
One speaker referenced the argument given by some that ST is a regional entity and thus needs to take into account regional concerns.
“Displacing a community of color is not regional equity,” she said, adding that the CID already has the lowest tree canopy and some of the highest air pollution in the city. She asked the board to “reject both Fourth and Fifth Avenue options.”
Chrissy Shimizu, co-executive director of Puget Sound Sage, a community advocacy group, echoed those comments by saying that residents in the CID have a shorter life expectancy than other parts of Seattle due to decades of environmental injustice.
Furthering the harms of the past by choosing either Fourth or Fifth Avenue “would create unacceptable loss.”
Former Seattle City Councilmember David Della, in a letter, described his family’s long association with the neighborhood and his personal advocacy “to protect and preserve this neighborhood from efforts to disrupt our Asian culture and displace people and the businesses that exist” in the CID.
“Frankly, having both the Fourth and Fifth Avenue alternatives on the table is insensitive and an affront to the history and needs of this community, so I urge you to remove [them] from consideration and study alternate routes.”
Longtime community activist and veteran Frank Irigon, representing OCA APA Advocates-Greater Seattle chapter, said that the community had protested similar displacement 50 years ago when the Kingdome was planned.
“This struggle is about our civil rights as Asian Americans,” he said, speaking remotely as he was wheeled from the emergency room to a hospital bed. “Let’s not repeat history again by forcibly removing us out of Seattle, but this time on a light rail because of our race.”
Referencing a civil rights song, he described the community as “a tree that’s planted by the water,” and added the refrain: “We shall not be moved.”
Others referred to repeated past injustices, such as the inability of communities of color to build up equity at the same pace as the mainstream, if at all.
One speaker said the community would be erased.
“The BIPOC community can’t benefit if it is no longer there,” he said.
Community leaders have decried the years of construction, truck exhaust, and above-ground vents that will release air from the transit added to the street closures and other disruptions that they contend will kill off the district.
Richard Saguin, the owner of a Filipino and Black owned business, said he “firmly protested” both options.
“By deciding to pour waste in the heart of our community, you are clearly telling us that you place no value on our lives, legacies, and culture.”
Other speakers bemoaned the lingering effects of the pandemic on the neighborhood, as well as Asian hate.
An advocate for mentally-ill BIPOC community members said low-income housing needed to be near service providers. Disruption of this network would mean it would “never recover,” she said.
Lydia Lin, the speaker to whom Balducci gave extra time, said that the community is made up of many different Asian cultures and thus draws tourists from around the world.
She worried that transit plans could “destroy tourism.”
The CID, said another speaker, is “one of the few authentic Chinatowns left.”
Gei Chan said she grew up in a small town that was “all white.” She said the discrimination made her not want to go to school.
“In Chinatown, I feel like I belong and it’s so important,” she said. “I am asking you to find another location for the station, not the CID. The CID is an important cultural home to me, personally.”
As for earlier comments, made before the April deadline—and thus recorded in the DEIS—one speaker said the community at that time had preferred Fourth Avenue simply because it was “the lesser of two evils.”
But Brien Chow, Chong Wa Benevolent Association outreach chair, in an emailed comment, said, “The DEIS comments are in, and the people have spoken: light rail on Fifth Avenue is unacceptable,” referring to the earlier spate of comments.
Lau echoed his comments in a remote statement, adding, “Do not encroach on the National Register Seattle Chinatown Historic District!”
In another indication of the increasing engagement between ST and the community, one speaker thanked the board members who toured the area for “showing concern for the community and the devastating consequences” of the current options.
“I invite the rest of the board members to visit,” he said.
To view information about attending the board meeting on July 28, go to: soundtransit.org/get-to-know-us/news-events/calendar/board-directors-meeting-2022-07-28.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.