New light rail threatens historic Chinatown, community pushes back

by Lizz Giordano

As Sound Transit plans Seattle’s next light rail line, a group of Chinatown-International District (CID) leaders say the project could further strain businesses, further uproot the community and threaten historic buildings.

The CID is preparing for a messy construction for the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension which will run a second set of tracks through the neighborhood. After weighing the options considered in a recently released planning documentmany CID members say the choice is clear: lay out lanes under 4th Avenue to avoid taking land at the Chinatown Historic District.

The existing light rail line, with its 19 stations including the existing one in the CID, began operating in 2009 and now connects Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Northgate. For new expansions, Sound Transit plans to build the CID station under 4th or 5th Avenue, just south of Jackson Street, not far from the existing light rail station. Only the route along 4th Avenue bypasses the district, preserving the buildings of the CID.

“Go down 4th,” urged Brien Chow, chairman of the outreach committee of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, a longtime fixture in the community. “It’s really a small sacrifice compared to the removal of our neighborhood.”

The new light rail line, which is at least a decade and a half away, extends tracks to West Seattle and Ballard. It will add a second station in the CID that will connect to Ballard via a new downtown transit tunnel, via Interbay and through Salmon Bay. The Seattle West Spur begins at a new station in SoDo, heads west through the Duwamish Waterway and then turns south to reach Alaska Junction.

Sound Transit recently released a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), a wide-ranging planning document that analyzes the potential impacts of a variety of routes, from construction and land acquisition to ridership and future bus connections for the massive project.

Plans for a 5th Avenue station show an entrance steps from historic Chinatown Gate. According to the DEIS, building here would displace the most companies compared to 4th Avenue options.

The transit agency is expected to demolish the majority of businesses along 5th Avenue between South Jackson Avenue and South King Street. With the bank and its parking lot at the corner of 6th Avenue and South Jackson Street. Just south of there, the agency is expected to acquire most of the land along 6th Avenue between South King and South Weller streets, which includes a parking lot and a building that currently houses several restaurants. Some of this land would be available after construction to build new housing or commercial space near or above the new station.

“We can’t afford to lose the remaining buildings and land surrounding the few blocks there,” said Jesse Tam, director of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “We have a vibrant economic community that serves hundreds of thousands of neighborhood consumers and residents; our space is tight with very limited space to grow or expand.

Building along 4th Avenue — the preferred path of many in the neighborhood — does not permanently displace any businesses in the heart of the CID and pushes construction activity to the edges of the neighborhood, according to DEIS.

“There will still be impacts, but they will be bearable because the big impacts will be farther from the neighborhood,” said Betty Lau, a CID resident as well as a leader and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association.

One of the 4th Avenue options would temporarily evict residents of ICON apartments. And would require partial property acquisitions in the Pioneer Square-Skid Road National Historic District.

It is also the most expensive option with the longest construction time because it requires the reconstruction of the 4th Avenue overpass, a road that supports 30,000 vehicles per day. Sound Transit priced the 4th Avenue alternatives at $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion, about half a billion dollars more than the 5th Avenue options.

“It’s great to have public transit; I barely use my car,” Lau said.

But if Sound Transit’s goal is to minimize impacts to the neighborhood, that means driving down 4th Avenue, Lau added.

“We have nowhere to go in Seattle,” she said, referring to a history of racism, gentrification and redlining that has moved the neighborhood repeatedly since its founding on the waterfront in mid-nineteenth century. “We have always taken the least desirable land, and as soon as it becomes valuable, we are evicted.”

For the 4th and 5th Avenue options, deep and shallow stations are being investigated by Sound Transit. The plans show a few options placing the new CID station 190 feet underground with elevator access only to the train platform. Transit advocates criticize these deep stations because the deeper they are underground, the longer it takes riders to reach the platform and move from line to line.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who sits on Sound Transit’s board of directors, has yet to take a position on the station’s options, Jamie Housen, the mayor’s spokesman, said in a written statement.

“He understands the current challenges raised by these options and is also mindful of the historical impacts infrastructure decisions have had on the Chinatown-International District community,” House said. “That’s why he believes any decision on station options must come after full and intentional engagement with community members and stakeholders, which is ongoing now, working to ensure a thoughtful, meaningful benefits and tangible and a mitigation of impacts on the community.”

The agency is currently accepting public comment on the DEIS, said Rachelle Cunningham, spokesperson for Sound Transit.

“The feedback we gather will be shared with Sound Transit’s board of directors before they confirm or modify the preferred alternative for the project,” she said.

A Sound Transit board decision on the route is not expected until 2023. Once the new station opens – in at least a decade – the CID will be a major transfer point between light rail lines. Comments on the DEIS can be emailed to [email protected] until April 28.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, specializing in public transportation and housing. It can be reached here and more of his work can be found here.

📸 The featured image: Betty Lau (left) and Brien Chow (right) want Sound Transit to build the new CID station along 4th Avenue and avoid taking land and demolishing buildings in the Chinatown Historic District. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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