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Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (C-ID) is a center for the Pacific Northwest’s Asian American community, but it could become an active construction zone. The regional transit agency, SoundTransit, has embarked on a set of massive expansion projects for their light rail system, adding three new lines, 90 miles of track and 57 new stations over the next 20 years. This expansion effort has been applauded, but such a large infrastructure project carries harmful side effects. 

In Chinatown, the location of the new line boils down to two main options. The first option would cut through Chinatown and displace upwards of 27 businesses, according to SoundTransit’s estimates. The second option would circumvent Chinatown, although it would require the demolition of a viaduct that carries 30,000 cars per day and possibly the temporary displacement of 120 residents of an apartment building. In addition, it would cost an extra $300-400 million and construction would last two years longer.

However, community activists say that building through Chinatown would harm the area in other ways. Betty Lau, who co-founded Transit Equity for All along with Brien Chow, encountered plans to close two streets to cars during construction, only leaving space on the sidewalk for people to get into stores. 

“This is a local, international and regional draw for tourism,” Lau said. “Nobody’s going to bring their family for dinner to an active construction zone.”

Chow met monthly with SoundTransit as part of a community advisory group and found constructing the line through Chinatown would entail dump trucks leaving the construction site every 10 minutes carrying dirt from the tunnel. These trucks would make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to reach Chinatown’s 1,200 seniors living in apartment buildings. 

While SoundTransit will cover relocation costs for affected businesses, Lau fears that many businesses could not survive outside of Chinatown. 

“If you relocate Ping’s Dumpling House to, say, South Park, how much business will they get?” Lau questioned. 

Chow and Lau founded Transit Equity for All to raise awareness about the effects of construction in the C-ID. They fear that construction will put shops and restaurants out of business and that Chinatown’s character and culture will be lost. 

“This is the Chinatown of Bruce Lee,” Lau said. “This is the Chinatown that produced the first mainland Chinese American governor and former ambassador to China, Gary Locke.”

Their views are impacted by what happened in Washington D.C., where gentrification (in part because of a new Metro station) shrank the Asian population of Chinatown to only 20%. Other infrastructure projects — Interstate 5, the Kingdome football stadium, a bus tunnel — have also chipped away at the C-ID. Advocates want to stop more displacement in Chinatown before it can start.

SoundTransit began community outreach for the C-ID light rail project in 2018, yet Chow said that the meetings were sparsely attended and, at first, didn’t include translation services for non-English speakers.

“They were just going down the checklist of things they’re supposed to do,” Chow said.

According to Chow, this approach neglected Chinatown’s elderly residents, who would be among those most affected by construction.  Even though the meetings were held in Japantown, adjacent to Chinatown, he said that many seniors had physical challenges in getting to the meeting location. 

Lau said that the same issue occurred with attempts at business outreach, noting that “eight businesses out of 300 showed up, and only the English speakers.”

Chow and Lau made it their mission to inform the public about the project. They have found volunteers to translate information; the president of United Chinese Americans paid for Transit Equity for All’s website (which a University of Washington graduate student maintains); and an arts collective created a poster and launched an Instagram account. Chow and Lau met with SoundTransit board members, launched email campaigns and started an online petition. 

On July 12, 2022, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution for SoundTransit to study the impacts of the project for longer, to “more fully address the community’s concerns with the existing alternatives.” 

“We’re very fortunate there,” said Lau.

Many other local organizations have held their own information meetings, listening sessions, and circulated petitions.

The effects of the C-ID community’s outreach work can be seen in the 5,125 comments that SoundTransit received on their plans during the three-month public comment period, which is “more than we have received for any other project,” according to Public Information Officer Rachelle Cunningham. 

SoundTransit will select their preferred option for construction in February of 2023, and later that year they will make a final decision of where to build. 

“I probably won’t be around when this is all finished,” Lau said. “We’re doing this for future generations.”

While residents are staunchly opposed to construction through Chinatown, there’s no consensus on where to build instead. This decision is one that will impact culture and commerce in the C-ID for years to come.