By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
After a long and contentious process in which community members over months protested various plans by Sound Transit (ST) to build a transit hub in the Chinatown-International District (CID), the agency appeared to kick off a charm offensive with the arrival of a new CEO.
At an open house on Oct. 13, ST staff courted community members with individual consultations about station placement in which virtually anyone could lean over a table with a giant photograph of the neighborhood on it and share ideas.
An assistant would then write ideas on a white piece of paper in small bullet points in English next to a massive sign that said, “Other Ideas,” both in English and Chinese.
Outspoken community leaders representing official organizations strongly praised the transit agency for its efforts, calling the evening “a huge success” and saying it augurs positive engagement in the future. A few more reticent community members, however, still seemed hesitant about directly engaging with transit experts.
“A huge success”
There was little to suggest that ST had not gone out of its way to set up an accessible event.
There were “stations”—other tables with other large photographs of the CID with potential changes marked on them in English and Chinese—around the hall. There were even boxes of flat onion cakes in brown, greasy wrappings that ST staff were handing out and community members were chewing in the back of a boardroom.
And phrases repeated by ST staff in short speeches seemed to promise openness.
“All options are on the table,” was a phrase virtually every ST staff member used in her speech, from interim CEO and agency chief of staff Brooke Belman to incoming CEO Julie Timm to other staff, in private conversation, referring to the placement of the new transit hub.
Betty Lau, as a member of several organizations that have engaged with ST for months, was lavish in her praise of the event.
“The Sound Transit Open House was a huge success; anyone could see how involved participants were, especially the elderly residents who are limited English speakers. It demonstrates what culturally appropriate communication can do for engagement and input collection,” she said afterwards, in an email. “This open house bodes well for future engagement efforts, particularly since we have begun mitigation discussions.”
An end to controversy?
Still, some community members seemed more comfortable sharing opinions among themselves rather than approaching the official table set up for exchanges with ST staff.
A few listened to interpretations in Cantonese offered by the agency, but did not utilize individual interpreters to make their opinions known.
In the end, if the ST open house accomplished anything, it appeared to have at least temporarily defused an atmosphere of protest, accusations of institutional racism, and overall community contempt and outrage over the agency’s plans to demolish parts of the CID and possibly put the neighborhood largely out of commission for a decade, if not destroy it, with dozens of businesses closed and major streets blocked off for construction or with near-constant truck traffic.
Still, ST staff said privately that the expansion of the system is inevitable and unavoidable.
Voters in this region have approved ST expansion three times, the most recent in 2016, when 54% of voters in urban areas endorsed a $54 billion expansion plan.
Grasp of grievances?
At the same time, there were signs that even after months of arduous community engagement, including over 5,000 comments sent in and collated by ST staff, that leaders of the agency perhaps may not have fully grasped the import of charges of institutional racism leveled at the agency and the city by community advocates.
Bettie Luke, sister of Wing Luke, the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council, and many other community advocates, have expressed statements and grievances about how the CID has been uniquely harmed over a long history of racist exclusion, destruction, forced removal, and redlining, precisely because it was occupied by Asians and Asian Americans.
Perhaps unintentionally, Brooke Belman, interim CEO and agency chief of staff, lumped the history of harms the CID has undergone with those of Pioneer Square, even as she described the neighborhood as a “cultural hub” vital to the city and the region.
“It is our duty to understand the impacts of past decisions so that the right decisions can be made moving forward,” she said in brief remarks. “I want to acknowledge that the CID and Pioneer Square neighborhood have gone through multiple infrastructure projects and many of these projects did not yield the same benefits as the impact endured by these communities.”
While Pioneer Square has been devastated by development, its history has not shown the waves of outright racism that have beset the CID. In fact, according to a history undertaken by the Seattle City Council, Pioneer Square was built by “imported” Chinese laborers. In the course of the history of the CID, residents were forced from their homes in 1886. The current CID is the third location of the community. Moreover, an earlier location was destroyed by a road built through it just as the current CID was bisected by I-5, helping to contribute to the worst air quality in the city.
Meanwhile, community members that were not among the most outspoken advocates appeared reluctant to share their ideas.
After an initial swarm of community advocates who thronged the main table where ST Executive Corridor Director Cathal Ridge sat, at least some community residents hung back in the boardroom after hearing a presentation by Seattle City Deputy Mayor Greg Wong and ST staff.
Community residents sat in a circle and shared ideas about where the transit agency should run its new hub. But when asked multiple times why they did not go out to the main table and share their ideas there, they vaguely assented that they were thinking about it and would probably do it “in a little while,” according to one.
When this reporter emerged from the boardroom later, it did not appear that any of these community members had approached the table with Ridge to share their ideas.
Longtime advocates such as Lau said the event overall could serve as a model.
“This is what should have been done from the very beginning,” she said. “So I hope that all government entities are paying attention to their own community outreach efforts.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.