On a side street in Kenmore, a 20,025-square-foot warehouse blends in with its industrial surroundings. The building houses several tenants, including a toy company, an upholsterer, and a maker of commercial fire alarms and security systems.
But the nondescript warehouse is also a hub for the area’s Asian communities. For decades, the property’s owners have hosted lectures and tutoring, Lunar New Year celebrations and ballroom dance lessons. Residents of the small city on the north shore of Lake Washington and beyond recall feeling that the space was the center of a support system.
Earlier this year, the warehouse-turned-community-center appeared to be on the brink of disappearing to make way for a new public works facility. City officials proposed acquiring the property through condemnation or threatening to condemn, as the owners, Somchai and Vilai Chaipatanapong, had no intention of selling the site they have owned since the 1980s.
City officials informed the owners earlier this month that they are rescinding plans to acquire the property, following a significant outcry from family and friends of the owners, along with Kenmore residents and those who frequented the center before the pandemic.
“We’re blessed we had voices and supporters, and the City Council listened,” said Anita Tsoi, the Chaipatanapongs’ daughter. “We hope this is a lesson for everyone.”
The city’s reversal was a victory for family members who said they didn’t have any experience with local government before supporters flooded in with comments during Zoom meetings and in emails. For some city leaders, it was a learning experience to see that the property had a cultural significance, said Kenmore City Councilmember Corina Pfeil.
“The city had really listened to what the family had to say and the community had to offer, and took that to heart,” Pfeil said.
Since Kenmore was incorporated in 1998, the city has contracted with nearby Lake Forest Park for maintenance, operation and repairs of streets, buildings and facilities. The contract expired at the end of 2018, and the city opted to form its own crew in a permanent facility.
But Kenmore, with about 23,000 people in roughly six square miles, is limited in space and property sizes. It was difficult to find many options for the proposed building that would require 1.5 acres, said Mayor David Baker. There were no willing sellers within the city for sites that matched the city’s needs.
“All of a sudden, we need to find one space for the department, buy equipment, hire staff,” Baker said. “We’ve got staff, equipment, but we don’t have a place to house it.”
The Chaipatanapongs moved to the U.S. from Southeast Asia about 40 years ago, and ran an import business out of their home. When they outgrew the house, they bought the Kenmore property between Highway 522 and the Sammamish River.
Last year, the family received a call regarding the city purchasing the property. They said they weren’t interested in selling, Tsoi said. But earlier this year the city moved forward in identifying the site as the next public works facility, saying it met the criteria — based on factors like size, site access and neighboring properties — better than other potential locations. The city offered $5 million; the family still said no.
“For many, our property is just a warehouse,” said Alyssa Chow, the Chaipatanapongs’ granddaughter and Tsoi’s daughter. “To the Chinese community, it is a space to see friends, dance and gather. For our family, it personifies our parents’ sacrifices, hopes and dreams, not just for our family but also for the greater Asian community.”
The City Council was slated to vote on the ordinance in July. By that time, the family thought it was a done deal, until a friend asked if they wanted him to write to the council. “You can do that?” Tsoi recalled asking. Dozens of people sent emails and spoke during the Zoom meetings about the impact of the center and the family members in the community.
Some commenters said they thought the property was chosen over others because the owners are immigrants and people of color. Baker said during a meeting that he was “disgusted” by the remarks, which he called “totally uncalled for and totally unfair.”
Tsoi said she felt that their location was picked because they hadn’t been vocal in the past and were considered the “small guys.”
“We are not powerful or politically connected,” she said. “We don’t know the system, but we are learning quickly.”
The city doesn’t have a plan for an alternative site, Baker said, as it focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and projects like the West Sammamish River Bridge replacement. For now, public works is housed in a temporary location, eight minutes from the Chaipatanapong property.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the owners of the Kenmore property. The owners’ last name is Chaipatanapong.