by Guy Oron
(This article was originally published on Real Change and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Speculation over the location of a new light rail station in the Chinatown-International District (CID) neighborhood ignited a fierce debate over accessible transportation, displacement, and equity in regional government planning and decision-making. Some community advocates say that divisive online discourse about the various proposals may have caused lasting harm to progressive movements, with traditionally allied groups backing different sides of the increasingly polarized issue.
As part of the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, Sound Transit began planning for new light rail lines between West Seattle, downtown, and Ballard. This process requires the construction of a second tunnel — and a corresponding set of stations — to handle the additional traffic.
Perhaps the most contentious is the station located in the CID. Early last year, Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement proposed the construction of a station in the heart of the neighborhood along Fifth Avenue, a location which would require the displacement or demolition of many businesses. After a chorus of opposition, Sound Transit retracted the Fifth Avenue option, leaving only a Fourth Avenue proposal between Union and King Street station buildings on the table. The agency also commissioned additional studies to identify other station sites.
On Feb. 9, the Sound Transit Board of Directors reviewed these studies and identified a second proposal for two stations to be built to the north and south of the CID instead of at Fourth Avenue. If built, the south station would have one entrance a block south of the Uwajimaya grocery store and a second entrance just across the street from the current stadium station. The north station would be a block to the east of the existing Pioneer Square station, with an underground tunnel connecting the two.
At a March 23 Board of Directors meeting, Sound Transit decided to back the north-south proposal, while leaving the Fourth Avenue station on the table for further consideration. However, the north-south proposal has not yet gone through the full environmental impact statement process, so the agency will still need to study it further to arrive at more precise cost estimates.
Ahead of this important meeting, a number of policymakers came out in support of the north-south proposal, including King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. In his March 7 state of the county address, Constantine — the new Sound Transit board chair — suggested that the transit agency could make use of the now-closed King County administration building to build out the CID north hub and adjacent affordable housing.
This new north-south proposal would lead to a more dispersed transit hub than the Fourth Avenue station site. The Fourth Avenue station plan would transform the Union Station building into a train hub to connect passengers between the existing Link station and the new station and King Street station, where riders can transfer to Amtrak or the Sounder. Underground tunnels would link these three stations together, potentially allowing for quicker transfers.
Meanwhile, the north-south station proposal would allow for transfers between all three light rail lines at the combined CID north and Pioneer Square hub. Riders on the 1 line, which would run from Ballard through downtown to Rainier Valley and the airport, would need to get off at the CID south station to access the neighborhood. Most riders would probably be unaffected by this because the other two light rail lines would still route through the existing CID station.
The main impact would be the transfer to Sounder and Amtrak for passengers of the 1 line. They could either get off at CID south and walk about five minutes to King Street Station, get off at CID north and walk 10 minutes or transfer to light rail lines 2 or 3 at the SODO or CID north stations.
Another difference between the two proposals is the second proposed station at midtown that goes with the Fourth Avenue station, which would be located just west of Interstate 5 on Fifth Avenue with entrances at Columbia and Madison. This station would be very deep because of its position on the edge of the First Hill neighborhood. With the north-south proposal, this station shifts south to become the CID north hub.
More than 300 nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and other community leaders within the CID community have also signed a letter in support of the north-south proposal, saying that it would be less disruptive and lead to less displacement than the Fourth Avenue station. Many transit advocates came out strongly in defense of the Fourth Avenue proposal, saying that the north-south option would make the entire regional transportation system less accessible and efficient and that it would harm the CID’s transit opportunities. A vocal minority of community leaders, organizations, and business leaders in the neighborhood have also come out in support of the Fourth Avenue proposal.
This fresh division comes in stark contrast to spring 2022, when virtually the entire neighborhood was united in opposition to a station on Fifth Avenue. On Twitter, arguments erupted between the supporters of the contrasting 2023 proposals. Progressive and leftist activists in Seattle have tended to prefer the platform, with transit advocates and urbanists — people within that group who believe in increasing the livability of cities — being particularly overrepresented online. Many expressed dread or dismay that the transit system may be watered down with the north-south proposal.
Puget Sound Sage Executive Director Christina Shimizu said that her organization was among the groups that helped galvanize support for Sound Transit 3 in 2016 to ensure it would pass, despite the ballot measure being funded by regressive taxation. Now the organization feels betrayed by transit advocates who relied upon them for votes.
“We have been working with, in coalition and in partnership, with our transit orgs and we want to see them make good on their promise that they would center Communities of Color in decision-making, prioritize affordable housing, and maximize opportunity for equitable transit-oriented development opportunity,” Shimizu said. “And right now we’re seeing a lot of those transit orgs fall back on their promise to be accountable to Communities of Color, and we’re really disappointed.”
While the Fourth Avenue station proposal is more seamless on paper, with its transit hub planned on the western side of the CID, the option would be far more costly to build. Sound Transit estimates it would take at least nine years and $540 million more to build than north-south, because this plan would require the replacement of the Fourth Avenue viaduct. The structure is built on top of filled-in lagoons and tideland and requires retrofits to maintain stability and earthquake proofing.
By contrast, the north-south stations would be easier to build, with an estimated construction time of four years for the north station and between five and six years for the south one.
Shimizu said that the Fourth Avenue’s station long construction period would lead to the partial and full closure of the busy arterial, dramatically impacting the neighborhood by rerouting tens of thousands of cars through its main streets. The result would be gridlock, Monday through Friday, she said, hurting small businesses.
“The traffic would be rerouted through the neighborhood for over a decade, which would be detrimental to resident and small business health,” she said. “It would clog up our streets with congestion, and we have many seniors who live in our neighborhood who have mobility issues and hang out at Hing Hay Park. Having like 30,000 cars that drive on Fourth Avenue a day, and, in peak hour, it’s 2,000 cars per hour, and at least 1,000 of those cars would need to be rerouted.”
Tiernan Martin, the vice president of the board for the affordable housing organization Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, said he was cognizant of the impacts construction would have on the neighborhood, which has faced historical exclusion and been harmed by projects such as I-5 and the Kingdome.
“Anytime there’s construction in this neighborhood, it needs to be taken seriously,” Martin said. “As pretty much the entire neighborhood has pointed out ad nauseam at this point, we’ve been on the receiving end of terrible disproportionate impacts for transportation infrastructure for decades, and it’s not just something that sort of is like a long history, it’s active trauma and impacts on us all.”
Despite this, Martin said that the transit benefits of Fourth Avenue to the CID and South End outweighs the dislocation that may occur with the long construction period.
“The connectivity issue is not something where we can just sort of wave it off and say, ‘Well, it’s only a few extra minutes to walk to these stations,’ or, ‘It’s really not a big deal’ to ride up to the north of CID and then do this long transfer underground or on the other hand to ride down to SoDo and wait outside for the line one train to show up,” Martin said.
Another concern with the Fourth Avenue proposal is that it would not help create more affordable housing in the neighborhood. Supporters of the north-south option said publicly owned land at the north station and a relative lack of buildings at the southern end of the CID would provide opportunities for equitable transit-oriented development. On the flip side, the land around Fourth Avenue has already been developed or bought up by private interests, said Derek Lum, InterIm CDA policy manager.
The organization is among the supporters of the north-south proposal. Lum said that a Fourth Avenue station would only accelerate the existing trend of gentrification in the CID by making land even more lucrative with an expanded transit hub.
“I think that it’s a toxic paradigm, from our perspective, to try to harm a specific neighborhood that’s at high risk of displacement, to fiddle around with rider-based issues that ultimately people will be able to navigate around,” Lum said.
A concern about the north-south proposal is that it would shift the Midtown stations south, away from the proposed Metro rapid ride bus route along Madison street.
“Deleting Midtown as well, which is part of their plan also, means worse access to First Hill via the Madison bus rapid transit route,” said Ben Broesamle, a founding board member of the transit advocacy group Seattle Subway. “First Hill is a huge, dense neighborhood that’s all too frequently gotten the short end of the stick.”
Artist Monyee Chau has deep roots in the CID, having grown up in the neighborhood. Chau’s art collective is also located in the CID. They said that they were very concerned about the future of the neighborhood if the Fourth Avenue proposal goes through.
“The businesses that it would specifically impact are ⋯ what make the CID the CID and are the folks who have been there for a really long time,” Chau said. “They’re like some of the original mom-and-pop shops. The CID is already in the process of losing that and has been really vulnerable to disaster gentrification. And so, on so many different levels, this would absolutely just, like break our neighborhood.
“And as someone who does use public transit, transportation and does rely on taking the light rail and the bus, I do think that we have to consider the lives of the residents and history first.”
This article has been updated to incorporate the decisions made at the March 23 Sound Transit Board of Directors meeting.
Guy Oron is Real Change’s staff reporter. A Seattleite, he studied at the University of Washington. Guy’s writing has been featured in The Stranger and the South Seattle Emerald. Outside of work, Guy likes to spend their time organizing for justice, rock climbing, and playing chess. Find them on Twitter @GuyOron.
📸 Featured Image: The Chinatown-International District is a transit hub for busses, light rail, and conventional passenger trains. A second light rail tunnel will require new stations to be placed, raising concerns about displacement and accessibility. Photo by Danita Delimont/Shutterstock.com
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