The collateral damage of urban planning

Marie Wong, Ph.D.

By Marie Wong, Ph.D.

The Chinatown-International District (CID) faces one of the most potentially (and probably) most devastating urban planning disasters with the four light rail alignments that are proposed with the expansion of Sound Transit 3 (ST3) . At a July 28 Sound Transit meeting, their announcement of a preferred lineup was temporarily delayed until early 2023 pending further study and to “fully understand [the] community concerns. This is not a decision that can be made as a simple land use equation of how each of these alignments can be technically constructed, nor should it be. The decision affects a neighborhood of people whose lives, generational family histories and livelihoods are deeply rooted and invested in the buildings and geography of this part of the city that is their “home”. CID is NOT just a Seattle neighborhood. It is what remains of a once much larger pan-Asian and multi-ethnic core of downtown south.

For more than 160 years, Seattle’s Asian American community has been coerced, evicted, forced to relocate, and have had their land holdings reduced by political decisions that have combined the interests of economic development with environmental racism. The history of projects that have been built on land occupied by Asian Americans shows us that the neighborhood has suffered and been diminished by the effects of redevelopment and transportation projects. Living in the CID is not a matter of ethnic resilience on the part of business owners and residents, as has been romantically touted in popular literature, but rather it is a real and ongoing struggle with considerable effort to maneuver through a gauntlet of years of collateral damage from planning decisions.

This list of damaging projects for Seattle’s Asian American core is extensive and condensed in this commentary, but includes the construction of the NP Railroad Tunnel (1904, which leveled much of the early location of Chinese and Japanese homes and businesses) , the construction of Union Station (1910-11, which removed Chinese and Japanese homes and businesses in a building now occupied by Sound Transit), the Jackson/12th/Dearborn Street re-levellings (1907-09, which moved or removed Chinese and Japanese homes, churches, and businesses), the extension of 2nd Avenue (1926-28, which devastated what remained of early Chinatown buildings), construction of the first Yesler Terrace (1939- 41, which removed the homes of 127 Japanese families, five Chinese families and 20 married and single Filipino residents as part of the 22-acre redevelopment), selection of the route of the I-5 (1957-63, which created a wide chasm of land dividing the neighborhood and removing hotels/homes and businesses), building the Kingdome (1972-76, which threatened businesses and disrupted traffic and parking in the CID), the Ozark Hotel Ordinance (1970-77, which closed the majority of hotel residences and, in combination with the I-5 project, resulted in the loss of over 3,000 public housing units in the CID), the reclassification of Japantown (2011, which increased the value of land for redevelopment), construction of the First Hill Streetcar (2008-16, two years late in opening with Jackson Street businesses losing 30-50% of revenue, and organizations service providers losing 70% of clients needing their services), and HALA and the Mandatory Housing Affordability Act (2014-17, as a tandem adoption that improved the majority of neighborhoods outside of the historically designated core neighborhood).

Redevelopment and relocation is underway, with much higher market rate rents creating an impetus for gentrification. The aforementioned events were all local decisions and do not begin to address the federal government’s blatant discriminatory actions and policies against Asian Americans, such as a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882, 1884, 1892 , 1902), the Immigration Act of 1924, the illegality of the incarceration of Japanese Americans by Executive Order 9066 during World War II (1942-1945), and the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934) which reclassified American Filipinos from U.S. nationals to foreigners.

One need only investigate the ramifications of each of these historic actions to see the damage that has been done to the residents of the neighborhood. Each of these projects took much longer than any of their respective estimates scheduled for completion and the swath of destruction was much larger than expected. In all of these historic actions, and with the ST3 proposal now, we are presented with the fallacy that businesses or community residents will return after the project is completed. It didn’t happen and it won’t happen, especially when you’re talking about a projected absence of 10 years. Common sense tells us that these displaced businesses will not stay in a decade of uncertainty waiting for a return to be “somewhere” in the neighborhood. The DEIS includes residential units that will be closed to occupancy during construction, but not those that will be “assigned”. The story should, at a minimum, include the 349 rental housing units in the CID that are adjacent to the alignments, and the families that will experience dust and noise pollution and construction disruptions. Residents are unlikely to endure this voluntarily for more than a decade.

What is most shocking and ironic is that some of the landmark projects took place after the city adopted the Racial Equity Toolkit (RET) in 2009, which aimed to bring about social justice and to elevate the voices of neighborhoods that historically have not received fair representation in urban decisions. Sound Transit is responsible for including this element in the DEIS, and they acknowledged it, but there is no evidence that RET was included in a thoughtful and careful application in route selection. Holding meetings to tell the community what is going to happen is a far cry from listening and working with community input. By the 1960s, activists and planners had already embraced the importance of “self-determination”, which meant that the community was a full active participant in making decisions about its own future. Contemporary urban planning must recognize and act with this as a starting premise, because it is a fact that no one knows a neighborhood as well as the people who live and work there.

A new apartment building under construction in 2017 near the Chinatown Gate in Portland. (Photo by Marie Wong)

Across the United States, Chinatowns are the neighborhoods experiencing the most gentrification, redevelopment, and the largest percentage increase in rising rents in American cities. These Asian American communities are also losing the quality of what it is to be a “living” neighborhood of residents and businesses that are integrally woven with the Asian American heritage of the community, and with social service agencies supports that act as a welcoming place for new immigrants. . Seattle still has some, and it’s worth taking a stand to keep them rather than risk losing the whole neighborhood, as happened in Portland’s historic downtown Old Town/Chinatown district of Portland, Oregon.

Festival Market Street Chinese palm trees with Louie’s house in the left foreground and the Oregon CCBA building in the middle of the block. (Photo by Marie Wong)

With Chinese-American businesses that were once scattered over more than 70 city blocks in the largest geographic Chinatown in the United States, Portland’s central Chinatown has been plagued by a relentless wave of redevelopment projects. One of these projects was a streetscape plan which was approved in 2001, the construction of which began in March 2005 and was completed at the end of September 2006. It was a corridor project improved transportation to help connect the downtown business district and was a major investment that would help revitalize the neighborhood. Sound familiar? The revitalization plan included a festival market street with Chinese windmill palms and 125 new street trees in what was already a badly diminished and damaged 10-block Chinatown with a few Asian American urban remnants scattered around. Conversational blogs noted that the rescue of Chinatown was happening, but unfortunately at the expense of the Chinese. As the project progressed, businesses closed due to pedestrian and vehicular access issues, the sluggish redevelopment period, and loss of footfall.

Sign for the Hung Far Low restaurant which has been restored and hung up at 4th and Couch in Portland. The restaurant moved to the Pearl District but eventually closed in 2015 due to high rents. (Photo by Marie Wong)

In 2017, newspaper accounts noted that most of Portland’s Chinese businesses had moved to the new “Jade District” about seven miles from downtown. The Hung Far Low restaurant had moved there in 2005 after being in Chinatown for 77 years, citing urban renewal and construction disruption as reasons for leaving. In January 2018, the House of Louie restaurant in Portland’s historic Chinatown closed after 30 years in business. It was the last remaining dim sum restaurant in the tiny Chinatown that was once home to a dozen Chinese restaurants. Potential developers have expressed interest in prime real estate and a few small businesses have moved into the historic Japantown/Chinatown area. Remnants of Portland’s Chinatown include the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Building (1911), the Lan Su Chinese Garden (2000), and the Chinese Museum (2018). The Gateway to Chinatown (1986) marks the entrance to these and the ghosts of what was once a vibrant community of Asian American businesses, homes, and social organizations.

After this redevelopment project was completed, 20 bronze plaques were placed on the newly poured sidewalks, each displaying different Chinese plants and historical information about what once stood in the Portland Chinatown neighborhood. Each plaque is a beautiful piece of urban art. But the markers also serve as ominous reminders of the community cost being paid for decades of poor planning decisions, as these plaques lie like headstones in a cemetery.

Marie Wong is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning and Asian American Community Development at the University of Seattle.