By Rachel Tao, AsAmNews Intern
Residents fear the Chinatown International District of Seattle could be facing encroachment due to a new light rail route planned to run through the neighborhood.
Sound Transit, in charge of building Seattle’s regional transit service, is preparing for a West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension that will run a second set of tracks through the neighborhood, reports South Seattle Emerald. Depending on which route is chosen, opponents say this expansion could force out businesses, demolish historic buildings, and further uproot the community, so many in the majority-minority area have pushed back.
The Sound Transit Board emphasized that plans are not finalized yet.
“For CID, there are several alternatives under consideration,” a representative of Sound Transit told AsAmNews. “The Sound Transit Board did not identify a preferred alternative for this segment.”
The representative also sent AsAmNews the following chart comparing alternative routes.
The transit agency has said they will take community members’ feedback into consideration. The new light rail line and the associated station are at least a decade away; Sound Transit has set the target date for 2035.
When asked for comment, the City of Seattle Transit Advisory Board seemed to stand with community members.
“The TAB agrees with community, business owners, visitors, transit riders, and residents that any decision made must not repeat the inequities and displacement that this community has experienced,” their statement to AsAmNews reads. “It is critical for Sound Transit to center CID community voices while choosing the best alternative.”
The debate centers over whether to create the second station in the International District below 4th or 5th Avenue and whether the route should be shallow or deep. For some community advocates, the choice is clear.
“Go down 4th,” Brien Chow told South Seattle Emerald. Chow is a chair of the outreach committee of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, a long-time central organization in the community. “It’s really a small sacrifice compared to taking away our neighborhood.”
According to Sound Transit’s drafted Environmental Impact Statement, a 5th Avenue station would have an entrance next to the historic Chinatown Gate and would displace more businesses. Sound Transit would need to destroy businesses along a stretch of 5th Avenue and would have to acquire most of the land along a stretch of 6th Avenue, including a parking lot and a building with several restaurants.
“We can’t afford to lose any of the remaining buildings and land surrounding the few blocks there,” said Jesse Tam, director of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to South Seattle Emerald. “We have a vibrant economic community that is servicing hundreds of thousands of consumers and residents in the neighborhood; our space is tight with very limited space to grow or to expand.”
4th Avenue is about half a billion dollars more expensive than the 5th Avenue options, but it is nevertheless the preferred path of many in the neighborhood because Sound Transit’s plans show this choice would not permanently displace any businesses in the central part of the International District; construction activity would be at the edges of the neighborhood. However, it would require rebuilding a road that supports 30,000 vehicles a day.
“There will still be impacts, but it will be bearable because the big impacts will be further away from the neighborhood,” said Betty Lau to South Seattle Emerald. Lau is a 71-year-old teacher who also serves as another leader of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association.
“We have nowhere else to go in Seattle,” she added. “We’ve always taken the least desirable land, and as soon as it becomes valuable, we get pushed out.” The neighborhood has a long history of racism and redlining that has shifted the community several times since it was founded in the mid-19th century. Gentrification is chief among the concerns of the residents, who are of not only Chinese descent, but Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese descent, among others, as well.
In the past, the area has endured several invasive public-works projects, reports The Seattle Times. These projects include viaducts over train tracks, Interstate 5, the former Kingdome, and a new streetcar line. As a result, community trust in the Seattle government and Sound Transit has eroded.
“What Sound Transit’s plan will do is, it will just accelerate the nature of the threat for the continuation of the Chinatown International District,” Larry Yok, trustee at an influential Asian American museum, told The Seattle Times.
At a public forum in March reported on by The Seattle Times, sentiment leaned toward a Fifth Avenue option, likely because of concerns about traffic on Fourth Avenue and cost. On the other hand, in one-on-one Chinese-language comments, about three-quarters of respondents favored Fourth.
“This is the last stand for us, to hold onto our traditions, have culture, a place to gather as a family,” said Lau to The Seattle Times.
No matter what decision is made, it is sure to affect the community for decades to come.
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