By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
With time running out before Sound Transit (ST) makes a recommendation to its board about the placement of a transit hub in, near, or outside the Chinatown-International District (CID), the agency last month narrowed the number of options it was considering outside the neighborhood to two.
The agency said these options were proposed by the community. Both options, however, come with challenges.
In the case of a proposed station south of the CID, a 16-inch, high-pressure gas line may make the station a “non-starter,” according to one industry expert.
While in the station proposed north of the CID, at least one challenge identified by the transit agency appeared to raise questions about the thoroughness of ST’s vetting.
At the same time, the agency did not give any indication of cost for any of the options it said were under study, which will be its primary consideration, according to the industry expert, who is partially funded by ST and asked not to be identified as advocating one route over another.
ST did not respond to questions by an editorial deadline, but instead asked the Northwest Asian Weekly to hold this story for a week in order for the agency to relay its final decisions about station placement, including cost, during its final community workshop on Jan. 5.
Meanwhile, some community advocates say the agency has violated its own principles of equity and inclusion by shaping the process so as to exclude study of viable options that might be more expensive.
The two remaining options outside the CID
An option for station placement south of the CID would be located near the corner of Sixth Avenue South and Seattle Boulevard South. But long walks above ground to make transfers amidst a gritty environment, not to mention a 16-inch high-pressure gas line that could impede construction, make this station appear unfavorable, according to the industry expert.
Transferring from this station would require a 5-minute walk to the Sounder station, an 8-minute walk to the existing CID station, and a 2-minute walk to the existing stadium station, according to ST estimates.
ST, in its briefing materials, said the “current walking and biking environment is challenging.”
A station north of the CID, near the corner of James Street and Fourth Avenue, abutting Seattle City Hall, also presents challenges. But at least one of them seems to raise questions about the thoroughness of ST’s assessment.
Using an underground tunnel approximately 103 feet below Seattle City Hall, riders would connect to the existing Pioneer Square station. But the extra distance would add about three minutes to their trip.
At the same time, a walk from this station to the Sounder station would involve a full 12-minutes.
ST, throughout its presentations, has emphasized the need to consider mobility-impaired riders.
Traffic impacts would involve closure of parts of James Street for six to seven years.
But the agency also said construction would affect the King County Administration Building for the same period. But it was not immediately clear how this would happen since that building was closed in April for an indeterminate—and perhaps indefinite—amount of time and its services moved elsewhere.
ST will make a recommendation to its board in February about placement of the new station. The industry expert said that its number one consideration would be cost, even above connectivity. Rising interest rates lessen the value of its funding. At the same time, between 2019 and 2021, ridership fell 63%, also impacting its bottom line.
One factor: from 2019 to 2022, there has been an almost 500% increase in remote work.
Up until now, ST, however, has never mentioned a cost associated with any of its studies. It is possible that it was waiting to learn the preference of the community before spending the time and resources to come up with a reliable estimate for any option, said the industry expert.
Transit Equity for All (TEA) co-founder Brien Chow said, however, that ST has never addressed the issue of remedying past harms done to the CID, and that in mitigating centuries of systemic racism, including the devastation of infrastructure projects, “cost should not be a factor.”
Chow and Betty Lau, another TEA co-founder, said ST had also chosen not to do further study of a Fourth Avenue Park Lid concept, which they said was an example of the agency’s systematic practice of dictating solutions to the community, rather than being guided by community concerns. They said this violated ST’s “guiding principle” of equity and inclusion, which states, “Shift Power: At its core, the practice of racial equity is a practice of prioritizing leadership of and solutions from people and communities most closely affected by the issues and injustices we seek to change.”
Among earlier alternatives proposed by the community, as reflected in ST briefing materials in an earlier workshop, was an alternative station west of the CID, named “Lumen Field.” That was, however, eliminated from consideration, according to materials at the following workshop, because of “limited interest.”
But it was not clear how ST had gauged interest—or the lack of it—in that alternative.
ST’s public information officer, Rachelle Cunningham, defended a process through which she said ST had engaged with the community.
“We started with the open house, where members of the community provided their initial ideas. After that, we took those suggestions and began studying them. At the next workshop, we presented what we learned and asked for additional feedback from the community, and so on after each subsequent workshop. At the workshop next week, we will summarize the work we have done during the further study period,” she said in an email.
A community in peril
For a station outside the CID to be chosen, it may require that the CID throw its entire weight behind one of the options, said the industry expert, a prospect unlikely given the divergent views within the community. At the same time, there appears to be unanimity that construction of the station on Fifth Avenue would cause irreparable damage to the community, particularly when adjoined with the already grievous harms done by the pandemic, the inundation of violence incited by nearby encampments, and anti-Asian hate. A mass exodus of businesses has already raised questions about the viability of the CID.
The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation last month declared the CID one of the state’s “most endangered places.”
In a letter to ST board and staff obtained by the Northwest Asian Weekly, Preservation Programs Director Huy Pham wrote, “A station along Fifth Avenue exacerbates displacement of local, long-standing businesses and their employees while placing yet another major construction project within a community that has endured an inequitable burden from such projects in the past. Cumulatively, these projects, coupled with the implementation of racist policies historically, has led to a cycle of erasure.”
Repeating past harms?
Edward Relph, an emeritus professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto, is founder of the study of “place and placelessness,” a field which explores how broad homogenizing forces tend to sweep away individual and distinctive places.
“I was very surprised when we drove into Seattle on I-5 last March, to see that the new rapid transit line parallels the highway. This is generally regarded as a mistake in transit planning. Rapid transit should go to and through destinations, so each station is or can become a local center where densities can be increased (like Northgate),” he wrote in an email.
Transit agencies are supposed to build around destinations to preserve their distinctive features, he said.
“Each station is regarded as a potential destination; it is important to protect the amenities that any particular station might offer. The [CID] should be somewhere that people from other parts of the city want to visit for specialty shops and restaurants. It is in the best interests of the transit service to protect and enhance those,” he said.
ST, in an earlier email, said the process had been approved by voters.
“Based on public input, technical studies, and budget and time constraints, the Sound Transit board selects a proposed system plan made up for representative projects and financing and puts the system plan before voters. If voters approve the system plan, Sound Transit begins planning and environmental work for each project, followed by design, engineering, and finally construction,” it said.
Transit devastation elsewhere
Sojin Kim, curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, said that in Washington, D.C., the impact of transit construction on that city’s Chinatown was irrevocable.
“I was a teenager when this station, along with much of the first stations of D.C.’s metro, was completed. When I moved back to D.C. over two decades later—it took me a while to realize that the exit at 7th was the same one I used to come out of when I came to Chinatown back in the 1980s. The immediate built environment around the exit/entry is totally different—as is much of that entire block.”
Kim said increased land prices, as a result of the transit expansion, also contributed to high-end development that overwhelmed the neighborhood.
“Obviously, the metro fundamentally changed Chinatown—not just because of the physical displacement involved in land use and ownership by Metro. But because a transit hub (anywhere) significantly raises the value and accessibility to an area—and so this has gone hand-in-hand with the redevelopment of the area—with sports arena, commercial chains, high-end residential development, etc.,” she said.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.