My Pau Pau is an 87-year-old woman with a gravity-defying perm and a gleeful giggle. She enjoys Cantonese opera, making a killing at the mahjong table, and out-eating everyone in the room.
Pau Pau also has dementia and a host of physical and mental health challenges that require nearly constant supervision. As a disabled, non-English speaking, low-income immigrant who has survived revolutions, colonization, and severe poverty, Pau Pau needs culturally competent medical care, Asian food that meets her nutritional needs, and caretakers that speak her dialect and can coax her into taking medications as well as into her sworn nemesis: compression socks.
So I feel extremely grateful for Legacy House, the only assisted living facility and senior day care for Asian elders in Seattle. It’s run by the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation District Authority (SCIPDA), which houses and provides services to over 125 low-income Asian elders – including my Pau Pau.
Pau Pau’s neighborhood is changing fast, and a big development project has my family wondering about her place in it.
Even better, International Community Health Services (ICHS), a community clinic which offers affordable health care to Asian Pacific Islanders and others in the neighborhood is located right next door, so that even though Pau Pau can’t get around without a walker, she can still easily access medical treatment.
But Pau Pau’s neighborhood is changing fast, and a big development project has my family wondering about her place in it.
A 14-story corporate hotel in the heart of the Chinatown-ID
Directly across Lane Street from Legacy House is a purple one-story building that houses Yi Sport Tae Kwon Do School. Another low-slung building behind it houses King’s Hookah Lounge.
In 2013, ICHS and SCIPDA tried to acquire the property that they sit on.
They wanted to use the property to expand the Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE). That’s a medical and social services program for frail, Medicaid and Medicare-eligible seniors whose needs exceed assisted living. The program allows elders to stay rooted in their communities rather than having to relocate to an outside nursing home — exactly the kind of service Pau Pau would need if her condition deteriorated to the point where she needs a higher level of care.
But instead, a corporation called Hotel Concepts purchased the property for $4 million — far more than what the nonprofits could offer.
“[Four million dollars] was way over market value at that time,” says Teresita Batayola, Executive Director of ICHS. “This is a real example of a community trying to hang onto an asset so it can stay for community purposes, but really could not compete.”
A few weeks ago, a notice of proposed land use action sign appeared, displaying plans to build a 14-story, 230,060 sq. ft. mixed-use development that will include a Springhill Suites Marriott with 158 hotel rooms, 103 market-rate apartments, 20 condos, and retail.
Concerns about the project from advocates and nonprofits in the Chinatown-International District community are already piling up.
SCIPDA, ICHS, and Denise Louie Education Center — a preschool for low income immigrants — all depend on the 8th street corridor for daily loading and unloading of hundreds of seniors, children and patients, and ambulance and fire truck access for frequent emergency calls.
Already unhappy with the safety hazards posed by the new First Hill streetcar through-line on Eight Avenue (and the lack of community engagement from the city), advocates worry about how the addition of nearly 300 hotel and housing units could negatively impacts the CID’s most vulnerable residents.
Meetings between Hotel Concepts, development designer Studio19 Architects, and some community organizations are currently underway, but the general sentiment from advocates is there hasn’t been enough due diligence with residents that will be most affected.
“Eighth and Lane is already a really crazy intersection to begin with, and there’s a pedestrian safety issue,” Maiko Winkler-Chin, Executive Director of SCIPDA says. “How do transient people to a neighborhood who don’t understand they’re in a senior and kids zone drive through? Can you even design around that?”
“I’m sure there will be a little more traffic around the area,” said Han Kim, a partner in Hotel Concepts. “But everywhere you go there’s traffic, I suppose.”
Neighborhood advocates push back
But it’s not just about traffic. For many, it’s also about preserving the character and history of a neighborhood.
According to the Wing Luke Museum, The CID “is still the only area in the continental U.S. where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans, and Vietnamese have settled together and built one neighborhood.”
In the 1970s, a pan-Asian community movement, led by activists Bob Santos, Doug Chin, Francisco Irigon and others, protested the construction of the Kingdome and advocated to preserve and protect the Chinatown International District and its residents. In 1973, the CID was designated as a special historic district through a city ordinance to “promote, preserve and perpetuate the cultural, economic, historical, and otherwise beneficial qualities of the area, particularly the features derived from its Asian heritage.”
In addition to approval from the Department of Construction and Inspections, the development is also subject to review by the International Special District Review Board, (ISRD) made up of seven members and coordinated by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. The Board approves changes in the District related to character and design of buildings and streets.
Some stakeholders see the ISRD review process as the last, albeit tenuous, hope to push back on (or negotiate better terms for) the Hotel Concepts development.
Pradeepta Upadhyay, Executive Director of InterIm Community Development Association, which provides affordable housing and community-building services, says, “I hope [the ISRD members] play a proactive role, that developers may not entertain from ordinary people like us.”
Is this development a symptom of a much larger systemic problem that threatens to displace communities like the CID?
The building will be a good 10 stories taller than anything else nearby, transforming the look of the neighborhood. But the bigger question may be about how it will transform demographics. Is this development a symptom of a much larger systemic problem that threatens to displace communities like the CID?
“There’s a huge issue in the neighborhood in terms of other development, and our physical and historic assets are at risk,” says Batayola.
The changing face of the CID
The 8th and Lane development is just one of many underway in the CID.
The building housing Bush Garden, the second oldest Japanese restaurant in the state and a much-loved community institution, was bought by real estate developer Solterra in January. In Little Saigon, there are plans for a massive redevelopment that includes a hotel and market rate apartments. Although current tenants are involved, and it will include a day care and affordable housing, the project has raised anxieties about gentrification, homogenization, and whether existing nonprofit tenants and CID residents will be able to afford the new space.
The Publix Hotel, which was historically Single Room Occupancy housing for low-income workers, re-opened in August as mixed-use complex with 80% market rate apartments, and has been pointed to as signaling a green light to additional developers.
“We have become prey, basically to folks with a lot of money who would never have considered a community of color as a place to locate.”
“Because of Downtown’s and Seattle’s overall growth and the real estate prices, we have become prey, basically to folks with a lot of money who would never have considered a community of color as a place to locate,” Batayola says.
According to citydata.com, median household income in Chinatown in 2013 was $27,663 — about 40 percent of median income for the city at large. Han Kim, the Hotel Concepts partner, suggests that the project will bring more people to the area, giving a boost to local businesses.
Studio19 Architects didn’t follow up on my requests for an interview. But in an email response they stated that hotel use is “a very desired building type for the community,” and suggested that the hotel and apartments would create new jobs in the area.
Others are skeptical.
“If it does go forward, tell me about these jobs at hotel, will they be union jobs or will you just 1099 everyone?” Winkler-Chin wonders. “Will you hire people from the community?”
“People are supportive of economic development,” says Dorothy Wong, Executive Director of the CID-based Chinese Information and Service Center. “Nobody is against that, so long as it prospers the neighborhood, including many longtime residents and small businesses, not have them being displaced, which is what is really happening.”
In a city consumed with debates over affordability, homelessness, and displacement, new construction often comes loaded with implications around economic and racial parity. To many, the proposed development symbolizes the fragility of the soul of the CID itself.
“On one side it may be good for businesses that are here – but it’s also displacing the community that’s lived here for the longest,” says Upadhyay.
When asked about the challenges that low-income residents face in finding housing, Kim responded, “I don’t see how it’s tougher to find housing, because [the project is] building housing. How does that work?”
Kim confirmed that the apartments and condos in the Hotel Concepts building would be market-rate.
While the city has allocated funding and other incentives to developers for projects that will include affordable housing — like at Asian Plaza in Little Saigon — many community-based organizations say they feel shut out.
Upadhyay points out that her organization, InterIm, has almost a half-century of experience with affordable housing.
“Housing is social justice issue for us, not a money making issue.”
“We’ve asked council members if there’s a way the city can look at supporting Interim and SCIPDA and community organizations more, rather than real estate developers,” she says. “How can we continue, when we have to compete with real estate developers who come in with a lot of cash?…Housing is social justice issue for us, not a money making issue.”
Wong says when she and other neighborhood advocates recently met with city representatives to express concerns about gentrification and the lack of community outreach and input, she learned there are 55 planned projects that would impact the CID.
“We were all in shock. We didn’t know that,” she said. “It speaks to that big question about, how is the city informing neighborhoods that are being affected about projects that are underway?”
Affordability has become an issue not only for residents, but also for service providers and small businesses.
Yi Sport Tae Kwon Do School, in the building that will be replaced by the Hotel Concepts project, has developed nearly 50 junior Olympics gold medals since it opened in 2004. Its programming includes a women-only and trans-friendly class, in addition to serving a significant number of low-income youth.
The school relocated there roughly two and a half years ago after being displaced by the light rail project on Rainier Ave.
Owner Lionel Lee says he was offered the space at “an amazing rate” by the current property owner, whose sons work out at the school. Lee says he has a great relationship with the owner, who has been transparent with Lee about the intent to eventually develop the site.
“The cost of space in general is getting so ridiculously high. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine being able to stay in Seattle.”
As a small martial arts school that is more a labor of love than an income-generator, Lee says the challenge of finding an affordable space nearby is daunting, now that they’ll be displaced again.
“We started in the ID and would love to stay. The cost of space in general is getting so ridiculously high. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine being able to stay in Seattle,” Lee says. “Really just we’d love for someone to rent us a space in the area.”
Preserving the soul of a neighborhood
The fear is that Seattle’s CID could go the way of other historic Chinatowns across the country that have experienced mass displacement.
“D.C. is the worst example of that” says Batayola, “They built a brand new convention center and basically all that’s left of the community is a couple blocks…and then they have Chipotle with Chinese characters.”
New buildings may include a pagoda rooftop or other interpretations of “Asian influence” in order to check the box of blending in with the neighborhood. But such design flourishes may ultimately be kitschy, empty references to spaces devoid of actual culture or the people that carry the cultural legacy.
“Displacement and gentrification in Chinatown International District has very deep ramifications,” says Upadhyay. “It’s not just people packing up and fleeing to places that are cheaper… the devastation is losing the entire history, culture, tradition, and network of support that community members have in this area.”
For me, I worry of course about Pau Pau, and her neighbors. It pains me to imagine her, stooped over her walker, struggling to navigate the hectic intersections along with hundreds of additional tourists and wealthier newcomers.
And I wonder, would a development like this, directly next to facilities for elders and youth, be acceptable in other residential neighborhoods — in Laurelhurst, Queen Anne, or Magnolia? Unlike people in those neighborhoods, folks like my Pau Pau have extremely limited choices around where they can live, where they can eat, how to access care.
“People of color and low-income people have always only been able to live in certain places,” says Winkler-Chin. “And now we don’t want to lose it, it’s very special and precious.”
And if Pau Pau eventually needs to go to a nursing home, she would have to leave Chinatown, because the space just across the street is instead occupied by those here for a few days and those with more means — that strikes me as fundamentally unfair.
I fear not only for Pau Pau’s everyday safety, but also for something less tangible but equally significant: her humanity.
I fear not only for Pau Pau’s everyday safety, but also for something less tangible but equally significant: her humanity. After living in New York’s Chinatown and seeing the effects of gentrification and massive tourism, I am leery of community members becoming involuntary objects in a cultural sideshow.
“It’s a safety issue, and a concern about respect for the people who live here,” says Batayola, “so they don’t have to feel like they’re strangers in their own neighborhood because now there’s a ‘higher class’ of people coming.”
Hotel Concepts and Studio19 Architects have requested to meet with community groups individually, while CID stakeholders including those I spoke to for this story have been strategizing around a coordinated response to the proposed development, as well as around the larger issue of gentrification. But they acknowledge they are already stretched thin providing programs to a marginalized community. It can feel like an uphill battle that requires wider public engagement and activism.
“It’s time to bring awareness to this,” says Wong. “We’re in a space where people are taking the CID for granted and moving along with whatever they’re planning to do, and people are needing to speak up about what it will mean for the CID in the future.”
And if the usual channels don’t work?
“Get back to our old days of activism and protest,” says Upadhyay.
The next International Special Review District (ISRD) Board meets twice a month on Tuesday. Meetings are open for public attendance and comment. The Hotel Concepts development isn’t on upcoming meeting agendas yet, but you can check for updates and location here.
You can also send public comment about the Hotel Concepts development (project#3020991), to city officials like Rebecca Frestedt – Preservation Planner/Board Coordinator for the International Special Review District (email@example.com), Gary Johnson – Center City Planning Coordinator, Office of Planning and Community Development (firstname.lastname@example.org), Colin Vasquez – Senior Land Use Planner, Seattle Department of Constructions & Inspections (email@example.com), Sam Assefa – Director of the Office of Planning and Community Development (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Councilmember Bruce Harrell (email@example.com).