By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Paving the way for the construction of a 17-story apartment building on the site of the former Bush Gardens, the International Special Review District (ISRD) board on Aug. 9 said it had enough information to both support demolition of the old structure and come to a decision about the design of the new building.
The proposed structure, called Jasmine, was radically redesigned to have more of what architect Gary Reddick called an Asian appearance rather than a sleek modern style, which would have been out of place in the neighborhood, according to Reddick’s interpretation of the board’s earlier feedback.
Added James Wong, CEO of the developer, Vibrant Cities, “This is my neighborhood, too. I have to feel it belongs.”
Still, board member Adrian Lam said the new design was a hodgepodge of Asian styles that inauthentically represented either the Chinatown-International District (CID) or any Asian culture.
“What you end up with is two different buildings,” he said. “You can see the struggle.”
The building could be either Japanese or Chinese, he said.
“The inconsistent architectural language may not do this community a favor,” said Lam.
Wong responded that the building’s style was aimed at the layman who would just be passing by on the street of Chinatown.
“We wanted to take what is traditional and make it modern,” he said, adding that the mix of styles was purposeful.
“We want ‘in your face’ design. A lot of laymen when they come by don’t see the subtlety,” he said.
Board member Ryan Gilbert said the building appealed to him in that sense. He also said the structure appears to honor the past as well as celebrating the next century, a theme the design team had championed.
The end of a long process
Such fracas over design appeared to be the final discord over a development that has stretched, just in the application phase, through multiple years and six meetings of the review board.
Critics have argued that the destruction of the former Bush Gardens, also called the Elgin Hotel, along with an adjacent structure, would represent the first time a truly historic building was demolished for a luxury high rise.
They contend that the Bush Gardens building, where activist Bob Santos gathered with supporters to preserve the CID in the face of development, should not be lost for an apartment complex that they say will further the displacement of low-income residents.
They say the site should be devoted entirely to affordable housing.
Supporters argue that the CID, and particularly abandoned areas adjacent to the defunct property, are festering with crime, making it dangerous for older residents who live nearby to even walk the streets.
In addition, they contend an influx of wealthier people to the neighborhood will infuse businesses with cash and foot traffic.
In the end, though, such competing contentions are largely symbolic since considerations of affordability and economic impact are outside the purview of the review board.
Still, during public comments before the board’s consideration of Reddick’s slideshow, the impact of the project on the future of the CID took center stage, with critics decrying it as hastening the demise of the neighborhood and a betrayal of the spirit of Santos. Supporters, meanwhile, argued that it would help rejuvenate the district into a safe space for people to visit.
A site of resistance
Describing the CID as her “community and cultural home,” Jacqueline Wu appealed to the mandate of the review board, which is to preserve, protect, and enhance the historic and architectural character of the CID.
“I am asking the board to live up to its duties and goals by preserving and protecting the Bush Gardens building.”
She said according to reports submitted by the developer and an independent study, the structure is similar to other buildings, such as the Louisa Hotel, which have been refurbished.
Nina Wallace, an activist, also appealed to the board to preserve the existing structures as a “unique and irreplaceable” part of the district’s history.
Sue Kay, who said her grandfather “was run out of the first Chinatown,” opposed demolition and the construction of a “luxury high rise.”
“Displacement and gentrification are real for our community. Not only do mom and pop stores disappear, but we have lost 350 Asian American and Pacific Islander families,” she said. “This is not a project that the ISRD review board should rubber stamp. The community has offered other solutions.”
Commenting on the vaunting of large areas of retail space as a benefit to the community, Meilani Mandery, of the Wing Luke Museum, said, “Retail space means nothing when it’s occupied by chain businesses instead of locally-owned mom and pop stores.”
A homeowner from Little Saigon, naming herself as “Yin,” said the former Bush Gardens building embodied “resistance and struggle” against the Kingdome, the former sports stadium.
“Uncle Bob and his crew met there often. This building holds so much meaning. As one of the only historical legacy sites left in the city and the CID, the call is to continue this legacy of serving the CID with affordable housing for the CID median income of 30,000,” she said.
Looking to the future
Some who supported the project cast themselves as looking, rather, toward the future.
“We’re creating a mixed-use building with community space for people of all incomes,” said Jay Ho, who said he grew up in the area and every week went to the CID with his family before it fell on hard times. Ho lamented that the vacancy of these two buildings, referring to the former Bush Gardens building and the adjacent structure, adds to the increasing danger of walking the streets at night.
Chris Robinson, who moved into the neighborhood from New York with his family in June, said the addition of Jasmine “should mitigate” rising crime.
Another supporter who gave her name as Jessica said she moved into the area a year ago as a software developer and enjoys playing volleyball and ping pong in the area, as well as participating in activities at the Japanese Cultural Center.
“Jasmine project is a beautiful proposed condo with homeowners who want to live, work, and play in the neighborhood,” she said.
Lele Tian said she moved to Seattle from China 20 years ago and said the CID was no longer safe, so she supports the project.
A pastor said he could hold services in the new proposed project.
“Jasmine will house a large community space for community gatherings, not just for faith groups like ours, but for wedding celebrations and other cultural events and activities,” said Royce Yuen, who stated he is a Seattle native.
Adding to the tension was the last-minute decision of board president Andy Yip and ISRD coordinator Rebecca Frestedt to limit individual public comment to one minute, rather than the pre-agreed upon two minutes. Yip and Frestedt said the number of those wishing to express opinions made such a decision necessary.
Still, some critics in attendance expressed outrage that they had not been told in advance (the meeting agenda, however, did note that commenters might be asked to limit their time to one minute if a “large number” of people signed up).
As for the destruction of the former Bush Gardens building, it was not clear why a major point of contention during the last meeting—whether it was necessary for the board to see a third-party structural engineer’s evaluation of the feasibility of salvaging the original building—was seemingly absent.
Board member Elizabeth Baskerville, who along with board member Ming Zhang was not present for the meeting, raised this question in an email read on her behalf by Yip.
“I am interested in learning more about 614 Maynard in regards to [municipal code] 23.66.318 B—If demolition is essential to safety, public health, and welfare then it may be approved. However, last time we discussed this, two structural engineers differed in their opinions regarding the feasibility of rehabilitation and the threat to public safety,” she said in the email.
Yip said the design team was not obliged to respond to the issue.
In the previous meeting, in February, an outside expert found that the old building could be refurbished, a point which the design team for Jasmine strongly contested, saying the bricks were “like powder,” although one of their designs involved using the original bricks to create a facade.
Moreover, supporters of the new project said the study was unreliable because it had been commissioned by Eugenia Woo, director of preservation services at Historic Seattle, who was biased against the Jasmine project. They also said the expert had not done a thorough study while opponents of Jasmine said he had not been allowed by the owner to thoroughly study the property.
In her email, Baskerville referred to this controversy, saying, “I had requested that there be more information provided, like giving the third party engineer full access into the building so that we can have a fuller understanding of the existing structure and if all alternatives to demolition have been investigated.”
Style and safety
As Reddick began his presentation, he said that “something really unexpected and remarkable happened following our last briefing.” Through multiple long meetings and considering feedback from Wong and others, he had entirely revamped the design.
He talked about drawing on thousands of years of history from Japan and China and his own experience in Asia, particularly China. For instance, his team had found commonalities in a reverence for brick, although in Japan the color white represents purity while in China red was a sacred color.
During the presentation, he gradually added components to a white rendering, such as red pillars, awnings, a white tower, a balcony overlooking the street, and a “moon gate,” which he referenced repeatedly.
A moon gate in traditional Chinese architecture is a circular opening to an elite garden. Here, in the rendering, it was facsimiled by a round design surrounding the front entrance, like an open mouth with two front teeth visible as doors.
Of a ballroom on the second floor with projected hundreds in seating, Reddick said, describing special windows, “light will come through and cascade against the wall.”
Board member Nella Kwan asked if exterior lighting would extend to illuminate the alley behind the new building.
Reddick said the team could “tuck in a limited amount of down lighting so that the [alley] wall becomes an asset to the overall composition.”
Wong said his company had illuminated alleyways in other buildings, such as on Capitol Hill.
He described it as an “easy fix.”
Frestedt said the issue of lighting comes up frequently in discussions before the neighborhood.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.