Peter Wu is taking a break. He has been moving his things into his new room at the NP Hotel and now paper bags filled with dishes, clothes and linens cover his mauve carpet.
Wu, who asked not to use his real name, had lived in another low-income apartment in the International District for four years.
“Down there, it was a pretty old place,” says the 59-year old. “It had a steamheater and only comes on one time in the evening. Here, they have continuous heat. At the old place, the owner, to save money, they sometimes don’t turn on heat at all.”
Wu’s old room was bigger, but more expensive and in shabby condition. Now for $225 a month, he can live in a building that has undergone a $5.8 million renovation. The structure is reinforced to meet fire codes. The cream-colored walls gleam with newness. The carpet smells like it has come straight from the factory.
And he can stay warm during the coming winter months.
Providing a decent home for people like Wu has been the purpose of many activists in the International District. Since the late 1960s and 1970s, these individuals have staffed the International District Improvement Association (Inter*im) and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority—more commonly known as the PDA—in order to meet the housing needs of people in the area.
While other apartment buildings have been refurbished over the past 30 years, the re-opening of the NP (Northern Pacific) Hotel on 306 Sixth Ave. S. marks the most intense wave of development.
In January, Inter*im and the PDA will reopen the Rex Hotel, on Maynard Avenue South and South King Street, to provide 30 more low-income residential units in the area. Just around the corner from the Rex, the Bush Asia Center will also get a facelift. In a couple of years, the International District Village Square will break ground at Eight Avenue and Dearborn Street to provide even more housing, store fronts and social services.
“It’s been one long development process,” says Bob Santos, former director of PDA and now regional representative for the Office of Housing and Urban Development. “It started 20 years ago and we never let up. … We’re now seeing tangible results of many hours of struggle.”
Santos says that for him, the driving force behind these projects came from personal experience.
“My dad used o live in the NP in room 307,” says Santos. “He lived in a 9-by-13 room and all his possessions were crammed in there. On weekends I would visit him. He had a radio, a hot plate, two chairs and visitors sat on the bed. He shared the toilet and bathtub with everyone on the floor.”
The NP that Santos’ father lived in was similar to Wu’s old apartment. And it was seeing his father live in those kinds of conditions that made Santos want to commit his life to rehabilitating the housing in the International District.
“Growing up in this environment, I knew that there was something better out there,” he says. “It was our motivation, that our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles be allowed to live out life in dignity.”
Inter*im, a private, non-profit development organization, bought the NP two years ago, after the building had been closed for 20 years. In those two years, the company replaced all the plumbing, electricity, heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and sprinkler systems. It installed a security system and reinforced the structure to meet seismic standards. All that plus a new paint job—inside and out—carpeting and a rainbow-colored sign to replace the old black-and-white one.
Sue Taoka, current director of the PDA, says that seeing residents’ faces as they move into their new home was in many ways more touching than watching the renovation take shape.
“It was very moving,” she says. “Watching people’s faces when they walk into the building, you can see their excitement. In some way this symbolizes years and years of struggle.”
“During the 1970s, we all had this idealism,” says Dionnie Dionisio, construction coordinator for the NP. “We didn’t know that any of that would materialize, but now it has. This (the opening of the NP) is the concretization of our dreams.”
While the revitalized hotel is a life’s work realized for activists, it is simply a nice place to call home for Wu.
“I feel much better here,” he says.
The refrigerator isn’t installed yet. In fact, contractors are still touching up the paint job in his room. And outside in the hallway, the carpet still needs to be put down.
But Wu says he doesn’t mind.
“Monday, they’ll clean everything,” he says as he points to the bits of plaster sprinkled on his floor. “Piece by piece, I’ll put everything in place. I just feel much better being here.”
The NP Hotel (306 Sixth Ave. S.) will host an open house, Thursday, Nov. 17, from 4 to 6:30 p.m.