Golden Arches at the Gateway: Fear of a McDonald’s in Chinatown

Melissa Lin February 15, 2000 0

On Jan. 24, at a meeting of the ID Forum, several community members voiced their concerns about the possibility of a McDonald’s setting up shop within the District. Michael Chu, owner of the Buty Building at Fifth and Jackson, recently confirmed that he has been talking to the McDonald’s corporation for “a couple of months” about locating a restaurant there.

Chu (who was not at the meeting) emphasizes that negotiations are “not final” and that McDonald’s is just one of “over ten parties” he has had discussions with about the property. He maintains that McDonald’s has promised to hire local youngsters to cooperate with community members on factors like design and menu, and has offered “to support community activities.” Chu also asserts that McDonald’s would not compete unfairly with the small family businesses, as several Asian run businesses in the ID already offer cheaper prices. Finally, says Chu, it is unfair to blame McDonald’s or any one individual for public safety problems common to the South Downtown area.

“It’s a complicated issue,” says Ron Chew, director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum and previous long time resident of the District, who is against the McDonald’s in principle. “A lot of the low-income residents might be happy that they could get a 99-cent cheeseburger. I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this question.”

Many believe a McDonald’s will compete with the small family businesses that have been the neighborhood’s heart and soul. A McDonald’s will increase the amount of garbage dumped in an area already trying to cope with a large volume of waste. And in a location already suffering from problems with crime, people fear it will only make the situation worse. Some have even called it “colonization.”

Sue Taoka, director of Seattle Chinatown International District Public Development Authority, comments, “As a property owner we are very concerned about the impact of a business like McDonald’s on the businesses and residents of this district.”

Alton Chinn, former program director of the Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco, provides his perspective as a community planner. McDonald’s opened up a location in San Francisco’s Chinatown sometime in the mid-1980s, and community members originally expressed some of the same concerns. Chinn admits that McDonald’s was responsive to some concerns; for example, the restaurant scaled down its signage so as to be less obtrusive, and agreed to expand their garbage pick-up. However, notes Chinn, Seattle’s International District is dealing with a different set of circumstances. San Francisco Chinatown is a more heavily touristed area, with the tourist base concentrated on Chinese business; therefore, McDonald’s impact on Chinatown was not as great. In Seattle, the District lacks the same strong base of tourism, and is already reeling from the impacts of the two new stadiums. “A business like McDonald’s may cause commercial rents to go up [in Seattle’s Chinatown],” says Chinn.

“Because CAP focuses on creating an environment that discourages crime for the neighborhood, we are concerned with the public safety implications of situating a McDonalds at Fifth and Jackson,” says Aileen Balahadia of Community Action Partnership, a community based public safety non-profit. “Currently, that is our most fragile corner in terms of drug trafficking, loitering, and prostitution.

Miebeth Bustillo-Hutchins, director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, which rents its office space in the Buty Building, agrees: “It is no secret that fast food franchises attract vagrants and questionable characters. I’m further afraid that clients served by the tenants of this building will be dissuaded in accessing the building services for fear of unfriendly and uncomfortable confrontations.”

“This property owner needs to get the prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers off the property, the appearance of the building and the existing businesses attracts them,” comments Doug Chin, long-time community activist. “He needs to clean up what he has there now, and it’s irresponsible of him not to do so. I don’t think that he has a commitment to the preservation of the historical character of the area and obviously he doesn’t have a commitment to improving the public safety down here.”

The International District has come up in the world lately. After years of struggle to preserve and reinvigorate the neighborhood, large corporate conglomerates such as McDonald’s will no doubt continue to be attracted to the I.D. On the plus side, such interest in locating business here is a sign that the District’s economic vitality is strong. But there are many potential drawbacks, and many fear they will be realized.

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