By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nora Chan is not worried about a new Sound Transit (ST) station for her own sake.
“My generation will not be using light rail,” said Chan, the founder of Seniors in Action. Chan was unable to attend a July 28 ST board meeting, so her comment was read by Betty Lau.
“We want our children and grandchildren to take the light rail to Chinatown. But there will be no Chinatown if you build on Fifth Avenue.”
Such sentiments, including even stronger pleas not to build in the Chinatown-International District (CID) at all, were heard at the board meeting, where a motion (2022-57) was passed to provide the board with further studies that are estimated to take six months.
Petitioners presented over 2,000 signatures opposing construction on Fifth Avenue, which they say would destroy the CID, along with its appeal as a regional and international tourist draw.
Others said the destruction of dozens of small businesses in any construction option would “obliterate” the neighborhood. Such damage had never been inflicted on another neighborhood, they said.
They described the CID as a place where young Asian Americans learned work skills and provided support to families. Others described it as a singular community where the marginalized had been forced together, but survived.
In a discussion following public comments, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott clarified that the motion, which is somewhat vague, means that ST is preserving an option not to build a station in the district at all.
A tourist draw
Brien Chow of Transit Equity for All (TEA) presented 1,954 signatures and a petition signed by over 260 people in opposition to Fifth Avenue construction.
“The signatures are evidence of the three neighborhoods of the CID being a local, regional, and international draw” for tourism, said Lau, co-founder of TEA, who said many comments came from China and around the world.
Rhyse Nguyen, a junior from Cleveland High School, came to the meeting with seven friends.
“My peers and I do not support the Fourth Avenue or Fifth Avenue options,” he said. “Please invest in the no-build alternative.
The CID, he said, provides entry-level positions for young people from Asian American backgrounds who otherwise might find it hard to enter the workforce.
“Many high schoolers are employed in some of the small businesses in the area and they are able to build skills, relationships, and general grit, which can lead to success later in life,” he said.
Echoed Mike Vu, one of the owners of Itsumono, a family-run gastropub with Japanese dishes, “One thing we will lose is the culture and we would not be able to bring that back. By destroying more than 20 businesses in the area, this would devastate the area.”
Richard Saguin said his Filipino and Black-owned business was still reeling from three months of construction in 2016.
“Ten years of construction on this scale will have an exponentially obliterating effect on our community,” he said. “Small business is how many of our people survive; harming that directly harms us.”
Aretha Basu, a political director at Puget Sound Sage, an advocacy group, said, “Small businesses will not survive” such a lengthy period of construction. “We can’t support Fourth or Fifth. We want the no-build alternative.”
Others compared inevitable destruction to past harms that are still present.
“Such effects can be seen now in Seattle’s own Japantown, which has still not recovered from the Japanese internment camps, even though at one point it was the largest epicenter of Japanese Americans in America,” said Nguyen, referring to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
A business owner in the old Jackson building said ST “needs to find other alternatives.”
Many protesters cited the city of Seattle’s recent findings that the CID was already among the highest risk areas for displacement.
“Even if there was no new station put in the CID, which would be ideal, there would still be a tremendous amount of disruption from building the new line under the neighborhood. Putting a new station in this neighborhood is continuing a legacy of racist infrastructure projects at the expense of low-income people of color,” said Meilani Mandery.
One protester alluded to McDermott’s apparent support for exploring a no-build option in the CID.
“Elders, youth, and small business owners are all concerned about the four alternatives,” he said, referring to Fourth and Fifth Avenue options. “Based on the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement], I believe all the proposed alternatives will lead to irreversible displacement and destruction of the CID.”
Chrissy Shimizu, co-executive director of Puget Sound Sage, rejected all station options in the CID.
“We have a long history of supporting transit to help the mobility of [Black, Indigenous, and people of color],” she said. “But the CID has the highest risk of displacement already, according to the city’s equity analyses.”
The pursuit of fairness
Thanking the board members who toured the district, Bettie Luke spoke passionately about “eight decades of seeing development and damage” to the CID. Materials from ST showed such destruction would only continue and grow worse.
“If the other stations are not losing 21 businesses, don’t do it to us. If the other stations are not tearing down historic and important buildings, don’t do that to us. If the other stations do not have a ventilation system that brings up bad air that’s spewed into where we live and work, don’t do that to us. The unfairness and damage has to end,” she said.
One protester, a fifth-generation Japanese American, said that his grandfather, after serving in World War II in military intelligence, was redlined into the neighborhood. Afterwards, federal infrastructure projects were touted as promoting equality but, in the end, only profoundly worsened race disparities.
“We were prevented from living elsewhere in Seattle and now, through no fault of our own, we are being forced to hold on for our lives as infrastructure projects threaten to displace us—like the great white flight from the inner city to the suburbs was subsidized by the 1954 Federal Housing Act and highways that allowed those families to drive their cars back into the city were subsidized by the 1956 Federal Highways Act, and we were embedded under an eight-lane highway over our heads,” he said.
“Which generation will it be that can finally have the breathing room to live a life without being collateral for white-centered ease of access?”
Some spoke up against danger to the community.
“I’m here to blow the whistle on the Fourth and Fifth Avenue options. I want to see ST move toward a no-build option that does not disrupt the neighborhood and meaningfully mitigates any damage to our community,” said Saguin.
A last stand
“Our neighborhood is our place of belonging in the face of racism and our ancestral home for generations,” said Joel Barraquiel Tan, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum.
Describing the CID as the “last ethnic neighborhood” in Seattle, Gei Chan said, “Please work with us to find another location, and do not have it on Fourth or Fifth.”
She added that the area was struggling with crime and homeless encampments.
“If any of you want to stay after the meeting and walk with me in the neighborhood, we don’t have just one homeless area, it’s all over,” she said.
Another protester said the neighborhood had always been at the brunt of people with power.
The CID has the lowest median income of all of Seattle, the fewest tree canopies, and very little green space, as well as the highest concentration of pollution due to its being used as a public transit corridor already, said this protester, whose name was not immediately decipherable from the record.
“People pass through, but don’t see the community,” he said. “Being a non-wealthy people of color neighborhood, my neighborhood has a lot of issues, and these issues aren’t happenstance but came from rulings and policies that were voted on from people in power, such as you on boards just like this one.”
He asked ST to choose neither Fifth nor Fourth Avenue but to “put the station in another location such as the stadium district.”
ST’s outreach was criticized as biased and inadequate by some. Disaggregated outreach data should include residents and small businesses, not just property owners, said one protester who said she supported the “no build option.”
Others reiterated complaints that ST had tricked the CID.
“Out of the comments ST received, many said they preferred Fourth Avenue ‘shallow.’ But many of these people didn’t know they could reject all options! ST presented these alignments in such a way that misled most people into thinking they had to choose the lesser of two evils,” said Mandery. “Forcing us to pick our poison through shadowy, misleading language shows ST’s dismissal of true community engagement. I would like ST to prove their commitment to this community by investing in alternative station locations outside of the CID.”
Community leader Frank Irigon, in remote comments, said, “It’s time that ST thinks outside the box it created.”
After public comments were over and the board began discussion, McDermott said of the motion, “I want to make sure this is inclusive of a no-build option in the CID.”
Such clarification might seem justified. The motion, which was passed unanimously, contains repetitive and seemingly tortuously vague wording. It was read into the record as follows:
“Confirming or modifying the preferred light rail route and station locations for the West Seattle and Ballard Link Extension’s final environmental impact statement and requesting further studies in some areas to inform potential future board actions to confirm or modify the preferred alternatives.”
Answering McDermott’s clarification, Cathal Ridge, ST’s executive corridor director, replied with what seemed a similarly somewhat indirect mouthful.
“Yes, the language in the motion, as I mentioned earlier, is intended to provide an opportunity to look at the shallow options but also additional concepts, such as you’ve noted. You know, ideas beyond Fourth and Fifth, as well. And what you described,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.