By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Every time a speaker at a Sound Transit (ST) board meeting on Feb. 23 came out in favor of building a new transit hub on Fourth Avenue—along the rim of the CID—scores of senior citizens sitting in the audience held up their hands and waved their fingers back and forth, like leaves fluttering on branches. But the forest of waving fingers extended only back to the sixth row—and stopped. From there back, supporters of options outside the CID sat, underscoring the divisions in the community that to some extent have been fostered by the community engagement process itself. Indeed, when the supporters of Fourth Avenue left, draining out of the auditorium and out the back doors, the supporters of a station north of the CID, or both north and south of the CID, moved up to the front rows to take their empty seats.
As if the choreographed dance of disagreement was continuing, when their supporters now went up to give public comments, the remainder snapped their fingers above their heads repeatedly, as if trying to outdo their departed antagonists in versatility.
The scene, while showing the community’s creativity and vibrancy, had yet an undertone of desperation, as the ST board is slated to make a decision on March 9 about final placement of the new transit hub that will impact the CID for decades—and possibly wipe it out, according to some.
“Stop trying to make us choose the lesser of two evils,” said Joel Tan, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum.
Splintering the community
When ST last year proposed building a new transit hub in the CID, the community came out in one solid voice against initial plans that included an option in the heart of the fragile district, on Fifth Avenue.
But since the ST board instructed the transit agency to take months to study more options, and ST staff held multiple workshops, in which mitigation funding, and traffic issues were discussed, the community has splintered.
Those in favor of building a hub to provide connections for the system on Fourth Avenue contend it will give senior citizens easier access to the benefits of the light rail without multiple transfers (there is already a transit stop in the CID). Further, they say it will bring badly needed visitors into the community, helping businesses almost extinct because of the pandemic and ongoing anti-Asian violence.
Those who want a hub outside of the CID say that the at-least one decade of construction required to build the station on Fourth Avenue would bring about the neighborhood’s destruction through business closures and massive traffic engorgement.
Moreover, they say the system as it is—and as regional infrastructure projects that have impacted the CID for decades have time and again proved to be—is in the service of riders that will pass through the hub and never visit the community, as happened with the construction of the stadiums, for instance.
ST and the community
Complicating the picture, ST offered its own “summary” of “community feedback” it said it had gained through hundreds of interactive events since July. But the “summary” was so general and abstract it did not appear to reflect the desperation and unique—at least in their own eyes—perspectives of community members who have gone through prisms of anguish, betrayal, disillusionment, and frustration during the extended community engagement process.
In addition, some of the key concepts and demands were ignored entirely.
Nevertheless, many said they felt the ST board had been receptive to their input and felt that past and present comments had made a difference in the board’s decision-making. Others said they had seen first-hand how their attempts to educate the ST board had been effective.
Fourth for easy access
Fourth Avenue supporters contend a hub on that thoroughfare would provide easy transportation, particularly for the senior citizens living in the CID. With scores of senior citizens, most wearing masks and many holding signs, in the background, Nora Chan, founder of Seniors in Action, offered public comments with two grandchildren by her side.
“It is close enough for seniors to walk to, and you can go to other places from there. My relatives from Hong Kong and other places can come here directly, especially my grandchildren can come to see me,” she said.
After she was finished speaking, many of the senior citizens sitting in the front raised their hands and wiggled their fingers in support, as they continued to do after each speaker supporting Fourth Avenue.
Two grandchildren of Chan’s also spoke, sitting at the table next to her.
“I go to the CID a lot to visit my grandma, Nora Chan,” said Kolton Chan.
Betty Lau, co-founder of Transit Equity for All (TEA), said, “[a hub on Fourth] has the most direct connections, is the closest to other transit modes, and is the easiest to coordinate with the city’s major infrastructure projects.”
Another point in favor of Fourth was that other stations involved too many transfers, said Chan.
She also said a transit hub right on the curb of the CID would bring more people to the beleaguered neighborhood, helping businesses and improving community safety.
“A new station on Fourth Avenue will bring a lot of people to Chinatown. That will help the businesses, which are not doing well right now. More people means more safety on the streets for everybody. We will be able to walk outside in the evenings again,” said Chan.
Said Amy Chen Lozano, a member of TEA, “Our neighborhood, our businesses, our residents deserve the opportunity of increased commerce, social equity, and racial equity.”
Brien Chow, chair of the outreach committee of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, which represents 21 community organizations, said he was presenting the board with a packet of 3,211 signatures and 31 businesses in favor of Fourth Avenue.
The signatures “drive home the point that the CID is a regional and international draw,” he said.
When the supporters of Fourth Avenue left, they stood up en masse, then flowed out of the board room, walking along the center aisle and out the back doors.
Now, those opposed to Fourth Avenue moved to the front to take their places.
“Strangulation and chaos”
They said that a decade of construction along the edge of the CID would probably destroy the community.
“The CID needs transportation but not a hub,” said Bettie Luke, a community advocate, adding that the Portland Chinatown had been eradicated after only 18 months of construction.
“Ten years will kill off [the CID], for sure,” she said.
Referring to a traffic diversion proposed on Fourth Avenue to divert the 30,000 cars that pass daily and most of which would have to be diverted, possibly through the CID, she said, “The Lid may not be feasible.”
ST has repeatedly said a bridge alongside Fourth Avenue, which advocates call the Park Lid, is not practicable. Supporters of the concept say that it could be lobbied for if ST chooses Fourth.
Luke supported a station north of the CID.
Max Chan, a representative of the Wing Luke Museum, compared the impending harm to that of countless other infrastructure projects that have cut through or suffocated the CID with bad air, such as the bisection of the district by the I-5 freeway.
Others stated that the damages done to the district by the pandemic and ongoing violence from anti-Asian hate crimes and nearby homeless encampments were still raw.
“Many businesses are still shuttered,” said Bettie Locke. “It takes a long time for businesses and residents to recover. It is too soon to have another construction project.”
Sue Kay, another community activist, said, “I fear strangulation and chaos.”
Eunice How, president of the Seattle chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, said, “We know many workers need reliable and affordable transit to get to and from the CID area and other transportation connections, including low-wage and service sector workers with jobs in hotels and stadiums. We broadly support the ST3 project. We are in solidarity with Building Trades and other Unions who are going to benefit from good jobs in the project.”
But, she added, “We don’t want this expansion at the cost of disrupting our Asian American cultural home, the CID. Preservation is absolutely essential. We urge the board to oppose any station location on 4th or 5th Ave in the CID neighborhood and strongly support the North or combined North and South station alternatives, with neither station located in the CID.”
Divisions captured—but not common horror
Such divisions have been exacerbated by ongoing frustration with opaque language used by ST at community events, including lack of clarity about station impacts and possible mitigation funding. ST has also coordinated with some organizations in the CID to designate certain meetings for business owners only.
A “summary” of community feedback offered by ST at the board meeting seemed to follow a similar pattern.
While it captured community divisions, it failed to mention specific worries or concepts, including the Fourth Avenue Park Lid, which TEA has advocated for repeatedly and vocally at numerous meetings. Nor did it mention widespread concerns that contractors hired by ST could easily renege on promises and extend construction, as has seemed to be the case in most major infrastructure projects—including ST’s own expansion.
While many residents of the CID see their community as a disaster zone on the verge of extinction, the language used failed to capture that sense of desolation—on both sides.
There is “a strong interest in supporting the economic health of small businesses and maintaining a cultural hub,” said Leda Chahim, government and community relations manager, in her comments.
At the same time, Luke, in an email after the event, said Chahim had been the “most effective” of anyone she had encountered during the entire process.
“She has been the most responsive of ST staff—talking to me and others, greeting me when I see her, listening and following up when she offers to send information. She is the single guiding light of hope who is genuine in her interest. I do not know what powers she has in decision making, but ST does now know how valuable she is to the public.”
Community voices have an impact
Some community members felt strongly that their voices and activism had made an impact on the thinking of the ST board.
“This was my first time testifying on this issue,” said How, in an email after the event. “The room was packed and I’m sure the board heard how passionate the community feels about these issues. I think all of our comments will have an impact on the board.”
Chen Lozano, who has given testimony at numerous venues, applauded the ST board for what appears to be a decision to take Fifth Avenue options off the table.
“I think the fact that ST is no longer considering the Fifth Avenue option is already a huge win for the CID. We came together in one voice, and they listened,” she said in an email.
At the same time, the entire process had displayed for a new generation how to organize and protest, said Lau.
However, when she and Chow took ST board members on a tour of the neighborhood, the results seemed to reveal just how needed was community activism, after all.
“One ST board member said, after a Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue tour with Brien and me, that they didn’t know people lived in the CID!”
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.