Seattle’s Chinatown seeks to push a future light-rail station farther away

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1 of 6 Seattle’s landmark Chinatown Gate must be wrapped during construction to prevent dust damage, if Sound Transit builds its second International District/Chinatown Station a few yards away below Fifth Avenue South. Neighborhood advocates are clamoring for it to be moved a block west, below Fourth Avenue South. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 6 CEO of family-owned Uwajimaya Denise Moriguchi, right, and cousin Miye Moriguchi, the company’s real estate director, stand on South King Street, which would be blocked while a light-rail station is constructed nearby under Fifth Avenue South. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 6 The old station sits below a Fifth Avenue South plaza. A second station would be 85 feet to 115 feet deep, requiring more excavation and street closures than before. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 6 The current International District/Chinatown Station is a frequent transfer spot where regional travelers might catch light rail, a bus to Oregon or taxis at Fifth Avenue South. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 6 A pedestrian walks past the International District/Chinatown Station. Voters approved another station, to open possibly in 2037, as part of a second downtown Seattle transit tunnel. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)
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6 of 6 A customer pushes a cart into the entrance of Uwajimaya, where light-rail construction might block the loading dock and one customer entrance. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

On teahouse windows and wooden power poles, the signs of discord appear throughout Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

“SAVE THE CID,” “WHAT’S AT STAKE?” and “SPEAK UP FOR THE CHINATOWN INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT,” they say, beckoning people to learn about the years of noise, dust, demolitions and truck traffic ahead, if Sound Transit chooses to dig the district’s second light-rail station at Fifth Avenue South, next to the landmark Chinatown Gate.

A second station is part of the ST3 ballot measure voters from King, Snohomish and Pierce counties passed in 2016, to help anchor what’s currently a $13 billion corridor linking downtown to West Seattle and Ballard.

While it’s true nearly any transportation project scars a neighborhood, in this case the purpose isn’t mainly to serve Chinatown residents, but to provide a new tunnel and greater capacity for the whole region to traverse downtown Seattle. The second International District/Chinatown Station and a second Westlake Station are the hubs where riders would change trains, depending on their far-flung destinations.

Neighborhood advocates insist the station must go a block farther west, under Fourth Avenue South near South King Street, with the highways and sports stadiums. That would lessen the impact on an area that’s been sacrificed for generations to regional construction.

“It’s systemic racism. They don’t really care,” said Brien Chow, outreach chair for the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, regarding how projects are planned. “The bottom line is they have an option to go down Fourth Avenue. They need to take that, because they need to think about the people in the neighborhood. They have a win-win option, so why not take that option?”

But choosing Fourth Avenue possibly creates a traffic nightmare, because builders would demolish and replace the six-lane elevated street. In that scenario, about 15,000 daily car and bus trips, and stadium surge traffic, must be detoured during six years of partial road closures, compared to only 5,000 on Fifth for a 2½-year closure.

Total construction time on Fourth Avenue is estimated at nine to 11 years, a couple of years longer than Fifth.

This ranks among the most crucial decisions facing the 18-member transit board, who’ve already gone five years without making it since the 2016 election. The board is scheduled to choose a preferred option in July, followed by a final decision next year.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell urged fellow transit board members May 20 to eliminate two 180-foot-deep station options because they’re difficult for passengers to use, requiring elevators plus long passageways underground. That would leave two shallower options, of 85 feet, and a 115-foot-deep version between Fifth and Sixth avenues south near South King Street. Harrell hasn’t said yet whether he favors Fifth or Fourth.

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The stakes are heightened by the country’s, and region’s legacy of racism against Asian Americans, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Governments later built I-5 through the district, then the nearby Kingdome that residents protested, then a streetcar whose construction obstructed South Jackson Street. This decade, shop owners and 3,500 residents now persevere amid vandalism, homeless camps, anti-Asian assaults and sidewalk drug deals.

Denise Moriguchi, CEO of family-owned Uwajimaya grocery and Asian goods market, and cousin Miye Moriguchi, the company’s real-estate director, say history remains relevant in 2022.

“My dad was sent to an internment camp,” Denise said, “and her dad was born in internment camp … we had a business before the war in Tacoma. Our parents and grandparents lost everything. They came back here after, to rebuild. We’ve really dedicated — and this is our home. And to think that again parts of our property could be taken from us, or just from the neighborhood … it does feel like there’s a continued pattern.”

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CEO of family-owned Uwajimaya Denise Moriguchi, right, and cousin Miye Moriguchi, the company’s real estate director, stand on South King Street, which would be blocked while a light-rail station is constructed nearby under Fifth Avenue South. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

Sound Transit, in its Racial Equity Toolkit report, says it’s unclear which option provides the highest local benefit. After disruptions, a site on Fifth would enable more than 300 units of subsidized housing, on leftover property after construction, and would be a faster walk to buses and streetcars, it says.

Uwajimaya, the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, and Historic South Downtown endorsed Fourth Avenue in official comment letters. The Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority calls Fourth the least disruptive choice, but says Sound Transit hasn’t explained how to keep the district from being flooded with traffic.

The Wing Luke Museum called the entire historical district “our largest exhibit,” and wrote that damage anywhere would reduce neighborhood cohesion.

Positive things are finally starting to happen, Chow said last week. “Basically, it’s been a whole community uprising, as far as getting comments to the Sound Transit board.”

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The current International District/Chinatown Station is a frequent transfer spot where regional travelers might catch light rail, a bus to Oregon or taxis at Fifth Avenue South. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

Fear of devastation

Cathal Ridge, Sound Transit corridor development director, told board members in May that the shallow Fifth Avenue options are the best-performing in terms of cost, at $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion.

Those savings come with an imposition.

Contractors would close South King Street and South Weller Street for years, as trucks and materials take over, studies revealed. Machines would clang next to senior apartments. Old buildings such as Joe’s Tavern, Seattle Best Tea, Carpet King and Ping’s Dumpling House would be flattened, displacing 19 to 27 businesses with 170 to 230 workers.

The 206-unit Publix Hotel at Fifth and King would overlook the excavation a few feet away. Chinatown Gate would have to be wrapped, to protect it from dust.

Hing Hay Park, renovated and returning to life, would be shrouded by noise and trucks.

“The residents that live in the area don’t like that. There’s too much dust and pollution,” said Vivian Chau, whose family owns New An Dong herb and grocery shop on King.

Uwajimaya’s own back entrance, parking garage and loading dock would be blocked during construction, not to mention there’d be noise reaching apartments over the store.

“It will be a big pain but we’ll be able to figure out how to push through. But we’re only as strong as our community is,” Denise Moriguchi said.

Before breaking ground at Fifth, the transit agency would condemn a parking lot and the former Uwajimaya store facing King Street. After the station’s built, Sound Transit would convert the site to a tunnel ventilation structure, surrounded by nonprofit affordable housing. The Moriguchis would rather develop shops and apartments themselves.

City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, said he thinks the environmental impact report undercounts potential losses of small business around Fifth. He endorses the Fourth Avenue version.

Traffic on Fourth

Sound Transit predicts a shallow station on Fourth Avenue would cost $1.8 billion, or $500 million more than Fifth Avenue, mostly because of the huge roadway above, says the draft environmental-impact statement, published in January.

About 120 tenants in the ICON Apartments, overlooking the corner of Fourth and Jackson, would have to move away for four years, Ridge said. (An ICON representative couldn’t be reached for comment.) Stadium Station would close for up to two years, and a seven-week train shutdown would be needed between Sodo and downtown.

Sound Transit would be attempting two projects in one, while yoked to the city of Seattle.

“The 4th Avenue South Viaduct rebuild could lengthen the overall schedule,” the environmental statement warns.

Rather than a negative, Sound Transit should treat this as an opportunity, Uwajimaya’s letter suggests. The Fourth Avenue South Viaduct is more than 100 years old and must be replaced anyway. Better to consolidate the work, than to excavate Fifth only to follow that with a closure on Fourth.

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A customer pushes a cart into the entrance of Uwajimaya, where light-rail construction might block the loading dock and one customer entrance. (Daniel Kim / The Seattle Times)

The community shouldn’t suffer, merely because the two governments don’t have their act together, Chow said.

Other groups tout what’s called the city-sponsored Jackson Hub vision, to improve walking and gathering spaces. A light-rail station on Fourth would provide a nifty transfer to King Street Station where Amtrak and Sounder trains go. Union Station, between Fourth and Fifth, would be converted from merely a Sound Transit headquarters into a grand entry hall, where people could walk in from Jackson, then choose either the old International District/Chinatown Station to head to West Seattle and Everett, or the new station for SeaTac and Ballard.

An estimated 30,000 people a day, half on foot, would enter the two-station area, and a similar number exit. Fifth Avenue provides a closer walk to Chinatown International District residents, where 65% are people of color, many are elderly, and 80% of housing units are subsidized or rent-restricted. Sound Transit thinks a site on Fourth would reduce ridership by 1,200 passengers, mostly by making transfers more difficult.

Chong Wa chair Betty Lau, 75, rejects the notion that Fourth is more arduous for seniors. She said they have no trouble ascending the area’s small hills and they’d walk more, if the city ever tackled crime.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com; . Staff reporter Mike Lindblom covers transportation for The Seattle Times.