Development in the International District

Melissa Lin April 15, 2000 0

As Seattle says goodbye to the Kingdome, the mainstream press talks nostalgically about baseball, rock concerts, and tiles falling from the ceiling. Meanwhile, International District residents view the Kingdome implosion with a mixture of relief and concern: relief because the Dome was often a burden rather than a blessing for the neighborhood, and concern because two (not one, but two) new stadiums are taking its place. Small business owners felt that their businesses suffered because of Kingdome traffic. Baseball fans would drive in on game days and take up precious parking space, while customers and employees of ID businesses struggle to find parking. Now with the two new stadiums, and a slew of other new developments, the problem will only get worse.

A recent Seattle Times article labeled the International District as an “enclave” that is only just “on the verge of change.” The truth is just the opposite: the ID is one of the most diverse communities in Seattle, and a community that has had to confront change at every step of the way, although change does seem to have speeded up of late. The original construction of Interstate 5 cut down the center of the District, creating a haven for crime and vagrancy underneath the Jackson Street overpass. Then there was the Kingdome, which brought increased parking and traffic pressures. Now that the Kingdome is gone, Safeco Field already towers over the skylight, while the Seahawks stadium will be built literally on the rubble of the imploded Dome. At every step, community members have protested, and then been forced to compromise when it was clear that their concerns accounted for little. And despite these hardships, the community “changed” and “adapted.” In the process, they managed to maintain the vibrancy and vitality of this neighborhood.

Now the neighborhood is facing new trends that will test our ability to cope with rapid development while still maintaining a livable environment for everyone. Seattle is in the midst of a growth spurt, and housing is bearing the brunt of it. Downtown development is fueling a rapid rise in costs. The Union Station renovation, the two new stadiums, and Paul Allen’s investments have created a market dynamic in which downtown development is moving south. This new trend affects Pioneer Square as well as the International District. Mainstream office development is moving south, mainly because Amazon.com moved into the old PacMed, this neighborhood became a corridor of high-tech development.

Throughout the ’90s, most of the development was community-based, initiated by non-profit community agencies. Ten years ago not much was happening: there is a mix of views from within the community about the new trend. On the positive side, there may be some benefits to local restaurants and stores. Maybe not all will benefit—for example, Little Saigon has less proximity to the area of high development. The white-collar workforce is less likely to go to the smaller restaurant, preferring the larger, more established Asian restaurants. Also, the ID has wanted to have more diversity in housing—more market rate housing and even a few condos are not necessarily bad for the District. But in the momentum created after the first project goes up, other condo developers will become interested. Once the market takes off, balanced development is far less likely to happen. Even worse, there are signs that some companies may be speculating in ID property—property owners all over the district have received form letters from one company offering to pay “all cash at closing,” even when the owner has shown no signs of wanting to sell. InterIm Community Development Association, a non-profit agency that owns property in the District was one of the recipients of these letters. The letter sent to InterIm contains these words in bold face and underlined across the top of the page: “We want to buy your property. We are not brokers. We are apartment builders.”

While such a letter does not conclusively prove that a company is speculating in land, it is pretty safe to assume that the offer is motivated primarily by the profit potential in the resale value of the property.

Ironically, the very economic vitality we worked so hard to create is creating new problems for the neighborhood. Now that residents, small businesses and community organizations have succeeded in making this a vital economic area, large multinational conglomerates are trying to move in and reap the benefits. Recently community members have been concerned about the possibility that a McDonald’s franchise may move into the Buty Building at 5th and Jackson. Many are actively opposing the franchise, citing public safety and sanitation problems at other downtown McDonald’s locations as well as the impact on the cultural and historical nature of the district. Regardless of whether the McDonald’s does move at the corner of 5th and Jackson, the corporation’s interest in the property is a sign of things to come. Other large corporations will surely follow, and how we deal with McDonald’s is a good indication of how we will deal with those others.

What many don’t seem to understand is the unique history of this District as an Asian Pacific American neighborhood—not just Asian, and not mainstream (that is, white) American. The common misperception is that we are an “enclave” of Asian “exotica.” (When Hollywood celebrity Sylvester Stallone recently filmed part of an upcoming movie in the ID, set designers spread extra garbage around our alleyways to make it look more “realistic.”) This District has a unique history that is an integral part of American history—that of Asian immigrants who were forced to live where no one else would, and who nevertheless build a community of which they could be proud. It goes much deeper than “Asian exotica,” and it goes much deeper than not wanting burgers and fries.

There are few alternatives to this downward spiral. Partnerships between property owners and non-profits like ICDA and SCIPDA though time-consuming, are worthwhile in terms of the benefit to the community at large. Ken Katahira of ICDA says, “New developers should be talking to the community that they develop in. We try to find out what their view is of the community—for example, is the ID a minority ghetto or is it a real estate investment in a vital Seattle neighborhood?”

Other options include such tactics as inclusionary zoning and NIMBYs (“Not In My Backyard” groups). Inclusionary zoning programs, in which new developments are required to have a certain percentage of affordable housing, have been successful in other areas including Boston and Montgomery County, Maryland. NIMBYs are the urban planner’s term for grass roots community groups who band together to keep out unwanted developments, much like the current opposition to the potential McDonald’s franchise at 5th and Jackson.

Unless community members are willing to put in the time and energy to pay attention to and share their vision of how they want their neighborhood to develop, corporate interests can and will go ahead with large new developments which will impact the community in numerous ways. Some members of the ID community have already put in a great deal of time and energy to create the Chinatown/International District Strategic Plan, a 41-page document issued in June 1998, detailing a comprehensive plan for healthy, controlled development in the International District. The plan was based on earlier planning efforts and extensive community outreach to ensure that a variety of voices were heard in the planning process. The plan covers the areas of cultural and economic vitality, housing, public spaces (including public safety), and transportation accessibility. The recommendations in the neighborhood plan are currently in the process of being implemented by community organizations and city government agencies. While the jury’s still out on the future of the ID, many are working overtime to make sure that the neighborhood continues to become a healthy one for all its residents, employees and visitors.

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