By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
At a Sound Transit (ST) workshop for business owners in the Chinatown-International District (CID) late last month, a young man in jeans and a cotton jacket came in and sat down at the table. There was something about his confidence that made all eyes turn to him. He flicked a pen around in his fingers, twirling it again and again in a sign of hidden tension.
This was precisely the kind of person—he had several businesses in the area—that the transit agency was seeking to attract.
But when he spoke up, and aired his grievances, the ST staff seemed to have no real response.
In short, the business owner, I-Miun Liu, said ST had given no assurances that any of its plans, designs, impact studies, and mitigation plans would be carried out.
“ST doesn’t even have a contractor on board yet,” he said, mentioning that he had been involved in a number of construction projects. “Contractors will say anything to get this most lucrative of contracts—a government contract, but when they’re actually doing the construction, they can do whatever they want, and I mean whatever.”
ST responded to the Northwest Asian Weekly that it was grateful for such feedback and would be building accountability structures as the process continued.
Liu talked about delays that were inevitable in every major infrastructure project he had witnessed, that the city would give absolute freedom to contractors to close down streets for as long as they wanted and to any extent despite previous assurances, and that small businesses were often put out of business.
“It would go a long way towards building trust with the community if there were someone we could go to if the plans you’re sharing with us now are not followed,” he said.
Rachelle Cunningham, public information officer for ST, said, in response to emailed questions, “As we progress in design, we are able to build in accountability through different agreements that come into place, and can also look into establishing structures for coordination and direct communication with community to ensure that concerns are elevated and addressed. Given where we are in the planning phase and early in design, we don’t yet have those structures in place and appreciate community feedback on what they’d like to see, what has worked well in their minds with past construction projects that the community has experienced, and what to try to avoid. This accountability will continue through the design and construction phases.”
Liu seemed to spook others at the meeting when he pointed to all the charts and graphics and said, “In a few years, when a contractor is working on construction, there will be no record of these conversations, and these people who made those promises will be gone.”
His sentiments were echoed by community members at a board meeting a few days later.
This, then, is the paradox.
According to ST, over the past six months, the agency has held five open houses, with nearly 500 participants, two online surveys, and over 300 community briefings, meetings, and tours, along with three fairs, festivals, and other tabling events, not to mention door-to-door outreach, email updates, and social media posts.
And on Feb. 23, ST staff will present its “summary” of “community feedback” to the ST board, wrapping up months of outreach.
But, despite these efforts, many community members say the engagement has been, at best, confusing, and, at worst, a farce—it has left the most pressing concerns ignored while leaving many in the community with a sense of abandonment.
“Now you can go back with your quota of community engagement fulfilled,” said Liu. “Government agencies and others are always coming to our neighborhood and selling an idea. Drug rehabilitation. Homeless shelters. Now this. They always send some people to do community outreach, make promises, and they say, ‘We’re going to take back your feedback.’ But nothing they say actually gets implemented. In the end, we’re going to be held hostage for 10 years.”
Just starting to come back
Outside the gastropub, Itsumono, one of the business partners, a first-generation Japanese immigrant, was wearing rubber pants and safety goggles as he pressure-washed the sidewalk one day last month. Inside, Mike Vu, a co-founder, was talking about hope and despair.
After three years of barely surviving the pandemic and violence in the neighborhood, the Japanese fusion restaurant, which was once the go-to stop for aficionados of niche Asian food, is now making a comeback, along with the whole neighborhood.
“People have just started to come out again,” he said. “But now we have no assurances of how long construction is going to take. It’s going to shut everything down again, and there’s no accountability about the actual timeline or impact.”
At the ST workshop for CID business owners, Liu and others questioned, for instance, if ST would really be able to route trucks away from the CID. ST has said it will use freeways like I-5—which is, however, clogged with traffic for much of the day.
Liu also brought up construction on California Avenue in West Seattle, where contractors had promised to preserve small businesses.
“The only thing that was done was to put up signs that said, ‘Businesses Open.’ Most of those small businesses went out of business,” he said.
Vu, in turn, referred to the delays in construction of I-5 near Tacoma that had stretched the timeline of the project.
“It took 25 years,” he said, flabbergasted.
“If we need a more relevant project, we can look at the current light rail project from Bellevue to Seattle,” he said in a subsequent email. “Originally, they were supposed to be open already. Or SR-99, many problems, delays, over budget, and possible damage to surrounding areas.”
Said Liu, “There’s going to be dirt everywhere, and rubble on the sidewalks, and there’s not going to be anything we can do about it.”
The CID pays the price
Bettie Luke, an influencer in the community for decades, expressed a similar concern at the ST board meeting on Jan. 26.
“I have seen 80 years of the CID being compromised, paying the price for the betterment of the rest of Seattle without benefit to our community,” she said. “Years of detriment have been invisible to the rest of Seattle. They have not seen the closing of businesses, stores and basic food and cultural needs lost, nor the loss of housing and the loss of cultural activities.”
The CID is an irreplaceable ecosystem and its destruction would have wide-ranging impacts, said Liu, in an interview.
“My kitchen guys that don’t speak English, they buy from travel agents in Chinese, they get ingredients in the CID, they go to herbal shops for their stomachs,” he said, adding that the community serves such purposes for the entire region.
ST’s community engagement has sometimes blindsided the community, said other community members. In public comments at the ST board meeting, Betty Lau said, “The staff needs to be neutral when they present information. At [a] Cantonese meeting, they steered us towards a set option.”
In emailed comments to the Northwest Asian Weekly, she clarified, “If ST staff were transparent and neutral in presenting the facts, it would be clear to the community what the best options are for discussion. But because they withhold information and show bias in their community engagement workshops and meetings, it’s much more difficult for the average person to make a decision unless they are faithfully attending meetings and workshops and asking questions to understand the implications of what’s being thrown at us.”
Cunningham said, in response, “ST staff’s role is to provide information about all of the alternatives under consideration. We do not offer opinions or express preference for any option over another. It is the board’s role to identify a preferred alternative.”
Architect Paul Wu, also in public comments at the board meeting, said community engagement in Chinese had been confusing.
“I applaud you for conducting a complete Cantonese session of the open house, but…the information was too complicated, and we had such a short time trying to explain everything, so most of the non-English speaking seniors that we have here behind [us]—they’re so confused, so I hope that we can do a better job. I know that the efforts are there, so I applaud you for that,” he said.
On March 9, the System Expansion Committee, chaired by King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci, will make a recommendation to the board about a preferred alternative. On March 23, the board will make its choice.
Despite calls from the community for more time, it appears these dates are set in stone.
“I do want to double down,” said University Place Councilmember Kent Keel, ST board vice chair, at the close of the board meeting. “Both for [the ST staff] and for our colleagues [on the board], that we make the decision as quickly as possible because every month, there’s a cost.”
Still, if the worst fears of some community members come true, it will hardly matter what form construction comes in, where it occurs, or how long it takes. Like other Chinatowns across the country, the community could be erased in a staggeringly short time, they say.
“I spoke with the Portland architects who designed construction in the Portland Chinatown,” said Luke, at the board meeting. “In 18 months, Portland’s Chinatown was closed down.”
Said Cunningham, in her emailed responses, “Community members have expressed their concerns about preserving the CID in many forums, including board meetings, tours with board members, and comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The board will consider this feedback as they identify the preferred alternative.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.