Chinatown-ID ‘Most Endangered’ listing energizes preservationists

May 10, 2023, 8:34 AM | Updated: 12:25 pm

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Form left to right: Katherine Malone-France, National Trust for Historic Preservation; Huy Pham, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation; Betty Lau, Transit Equity for All; Joël Barriquiel Tan, Wing Luke Museum
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

Seattle’s Chinatown-International District has just been added to the list of “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” in the United States by a national preservation group, with the official announcement made in the heart of the neighborhood at Hing Hay Park on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, KIRO Newsradio previewed the new exhibit Nobody Lives Here at Wing Luke Museum about how the construction of Interstate 5 and the Kingdome had damaged the Chinatown-International District. The context for the exhibit includes the debate regarding where to build a Sound Transit light rail station in that neighborhood, which some view with as much potential for disruption as those earlier projects.

Seattle’s CID placed on list of endangered places

The announcement in Seattle – and the “endangered” part of the story – is closely related to that last point, but it’s also about more than that.

Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) has released an annual list of the most endangered historic places. Oftentimes, the places listed are individual buildings. This year, one place on the list is the Osterman Gas Station in Peach Springs, Ariz. – a 1926 brick building on the old Route 66 which recently suffered severe weather damage.

This year, along with the gas station and other historic buildings, there are several neighborhoods on the list.

Katherine Malone-France, Chief Preservation Officer for the NTHP, was in town to make the announcement. Along with Seattle, she says Chinatown in Philadelphia was also added to the list, along with other entire communities in parts of the American South. That entire communities in Seattle, Philadelphia, and elsewhere are being considered “endangered” may point to a bigger trend underway, and the NTHP has taken notice.

Malone-France told KIRO Newsradio that the NTHP recently launched an initiative focused on addressing threats to Chinatowns all over the United States. The heart of the effort, Malone-France said, is what she calls “community-centered development.”

“From our perspective, it is about networking together advocates working in Chinatowns all over this country so that they can benefit from each other’s experience and expertise,” Malone-France told KIRO Newsradio. “We also plan to continue our work to document Chinatowns and other cultural resources in this country associated with Chinese-American history. And lastly, eventually, we hope to bring grant funding to support Chinatowns whether we’re talking about advocacy or legacy businesses.”

Chris Moore is the executive director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation (WTHP). This local group put Seattle’s Chinatown-International District on its own statewide endangered list last year. The Washington Trust also submitted the nomination to the NTHP, which resulted in the neighborhood making this year’s national list. It’s the first time in the 35-year history of the list that any historic place in the Evergreen State has been included.

Moore says the national attention will help raise the profile of the decision Sound Transit will be making about route alignment and station location in the Chinatown-International District for the Ballard Link Extension project – which he says is especially critical given the history of disruptive projects – the Kingdome, I-5 – in that neighborhood.

“We want to make sure that the community’s voices are heard in this,” Moore told KIRO Newsradio. “And that as they go through their decision-making process, Sound Transit takes not just kind of the bottom line dollars into consideration, or the most convenient from a technical standpoint, but really gets more sort of holistic about it and thinks about the community needs, works with the community to the best degree possible getting a consensus around an option – which I know is very difficult – but going through that process and making sure the community’s needs are understood and heard.

“And we know, historically, especially for Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, that has not been the case,” Moore said.

To critics who say the preservationists are against anything related to new construction, Moore says it’s not about shutting down the project or making it disappear.

“This is not an anti-transit movement by any stretch,” Moore said. “It’s understanding how that decision happens, how that process works out, and making sure all components of impacts are looked at. So no, I think if you talk to people here, they would say, ‘Yeah, we do want transit that’s important for our future. It’s important for the future of the region. It’s important for this community. But let’s be careful about where it goes and how it’s done.’”

The “endangered” aspect of other places on the list is easier to grasp – that old gas station in Arizona needs a collapsed brick wall repaired, for instance.

Seattle’s Chinatown-International District faces a more complicated set of threats: the possibility of major disruption to residents and businesses during a long construction project and possible permanent displacement of parts of a historic neighborhood. Add to this all the other pressures facing urban neighborhoods, such as homelessness, crime, and the rising cost of living.

One clear thing is that with this national recognition, the Washington Trust is embracing an activist approach to what comes next.

Huy Pham, a WTHP preservation director, told KIRO Newsradio that the event Tuesday was about getting the community organizations and groups together – who may not agree on the location for the light rail station but who are unified when it comes to engaging Sound Transit about the decision.

“There has been a rift between a variety of options, some groups support Fourth Avenue, some groups support North of CID, some groups say no build at all, some groups don’t care,” Pham told KIRO Newsradio, referencing various options for the light rail station. “But today, especially for Asian American organizations, it was coming together and saying, ‘Hey, we want the same thing. We want the least displacement, the least disruption, as well as equal and expanded access to transit.’

“That’s what today’s about,” Pham said.

Late Tuesday, KIRO Newsradio reached out to Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham, who sent a long statement detailing the number of public meetings and other community engagement efforts the agency has made as part of the station siting process.

Cunningham also wrote that “the Sound Transit Board identified the North of CID and South of CID stations as part of the preferred alternative for the Ballard Link Extension project. This indicates the Board’s preference at this time but is not the final decision.” Cunningham’s email said that Sound Transit looks forward to continuing the community dialog and that the “Board will select the project to be built following the publication of the Final [Environmental Impact Statement].”

That decision is likely sometime in the next year or so. Meanwhile, like so much of Seattle in this post-pandemic era, there are reasons to be hopeful about the immediate future for the Chinatown-International District.

Joël Barraquiel Tan is the director of the Wing Luke Museum. He said to come and visit and take it all in and to especially notice the little signs that things are improving.

“I want to invite everyone to notice the life that’s already come back to this neighborhood,” Barraquiel Tan told KIRO Newsradio, pointing to the nearby restaurant Jade Garden, which had just removed plywood that had been protecting its windows for much of the past three years.

“Just this morning, one of our favorite dim sum spots here on King [Street], just the image of folks taking down the wooden boards and seeing the glass and interior of the restaurant again from King Street gives me life,” Barraquiel Tan said. “They were boarded up, and just the visual difference . . . how special it was to see the contractors doing it – it was like a ritual!”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Chinatown-ID ‘Most Endangered’ listing energizes preservationists