Photo depicting Betty Lau and Brien Chow standing in front of the Seattle Chinatown Historic District gate/arch.

New Light Rail Threatens Chinatown Historic District, Community Pushes Back

by Lizz Giordano

As Sound Transit plans the next Seattle light rail line, a group of leaders in the Chinatown-International District (CID) say the project could force out more business, further uprooting the community and threatening historic buildings.

The CID is preparing for a messy buildout for the West Seattle-Ballard Light Rail Extension that will run a second set of tracks through the neighborhood. After weighing options studied in a newly released planning document, many in the CID say the choice is clear: lay tracks under 4th Avenue to avoid taking land from the Chinatown Historic District.

The existing light rail line, with its 19 stations including the existing one in the CID, began operating in 2009 and now runs from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Northgate. For the new extensions, Sound Transit is considering building the CID station below 4th or 5th Avenues, just south of Jackson Street not far from the existing light rail station. Only the route along 4th Avenue bypasses the neighborhood, preserving buildings in the CID. 

“Go down 4th,” urged Brien Chow, a chair of the outreach committee for the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, a long-standing fixture in the community. “It’s really a small sacrifice compared to taking away our neighborhood.”

The new light rail line, which is at least a decade and a half away, expands tracks to West Seattle and Ballard. It will add a second station in the CID that will connect with Ballard via a new downtown transit tunnel, through Interbay and across Salmon Bay. The West Seattle spur starts at a new station in SoDo, heads west across the Duwamish Waterway then turns south to reach the Alaska Junction. 

Sound Transit recently released a draft of the environmental impact statement (DEIS), a wide-ranging planning document that analyzes potential impacts of a variety of routes from construction and land acquisition to ridership and future bus connections for the massive project. 

Plans for a 5th Avenue station show an entrance just steps from the historic Chinatown Gate. According to the DEIS, building here would displace the most businesses compared to 4th Avenue options. 

The transit agency would need to demolish the majority of businesses along 5th Avenue between South Jackson Avenue and South King Street. Along with the bank and its parking lot at the corner of 6th Avenue and South Jackson Street. Just south of there, the agency would need to acquire most of the land along 6th Avenue between South King and South Weller streets, which includes a parking lot and a building that currently houses several restaurants. Some of this land would be available after construction to build new housing or retail spaces near or above the new station. 

 “We can’t afford to lose any of the remaining buildings and land surrounding the few blocks there,” said Jesse Tam, a director at the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce. “We have a vibrant economic community that is servicing hundreds of thousands of consumers and residents in the neighborhood; our space is tight with very limited space to grow or to expand.”

Building along 4th Avenue — the preferred path of many in the neighborhood — does not permanently displace any businesses within the heart of the CID and pushes construction activity to the edges of the neighborhood, according to the DEIS. 

“There will still be impacts, but it will be bearable because the big impacts will be further away from the neighborhood,” said Betty Lau, as a resident of the CID as well as leader and member of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association. 

One of the 4th Avenue options would temporarily evict residents at the ICON Apartments. And would require partial property acquisitions in the Pioneer Square-Skid Road National Historic District.

It’s also the most costly option with the longest construction build-out because it requires rebuilding the 4th Avenue viaduct, a road that supports 30,000 vehicles a day. Sound Transit priced the 4th Avenue alternatives between $1.7–1.8 billion, about half a billion dollars more than the 5th Avenue options. 

“It’s great to have transit; I hardly use my car,” Lau said.

But if Sound Transit’s goal is to minimize impacts to the neighborhood, that means going down 4th Avenue, Lau added. 

“We have nowhere else to go in Seattle,” she said, referencing a history of racism, gentrification, and redlining that has moved the neighborhood several times since its founding on the waterfront in the mid-19th century. “We’ve always taken the least desirable land, and as soon as it becomes valuable, we get pushed out.” 

For both 4th and 5th Avenue options, there are deep and shallow stations being studied by Sound Transit. Plans show a few options placing the new CID station 190 feet below ground with elevator-only access to the train platform. Transit advocates are critical of these deep stations because the further they are underground, the longer it takes for riders to reach the platform and transfer between lines.

Mayor Bruce Harrell, who sits on the Sound Transit board, has not yet taken a position on the station options, said Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for the mayor in a written statement.

“He understands the present-day challenges raised by these options and is also aware of the historic impacts that infrastructure decisions have had on the Chinatown-International District community,” House said. “That’s why he believes any decision on station options must come after comprehensive and intentional engagement with community members and stakeholders, which is underway now, working to ensure a thoughtful approach, meaningful and tangible benefits, and mitigation for community impacts.”

The agency is currently accepting comments from the public on the DEIS, said Rachelle Cunningham, a spokesperson for Sound Transit. 

“The feedback we are collecting will be shared with the Sound Transit board before they confirm or modify the preferred alternative for the project,” she said. 

A decision by the Sound Transit board on the route is not expected until 2023. Once the new station is open — at least a decade away — the CID will be a major transfer point between light rail lines. Comments on the DEIS can be emailed to until April 28.

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: Betty Lau (left) and Brien Chow (right) want Sound Transit to build the new CID station along 4th Avenue and avoid taking land and demolishing buildings in the Chinatown Historic District. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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