A view of the current International District/Chinatown light rail station (left), Union Station (center), and King Street Station (right). Sound Transit’s planned second light station has been proposed on 5th Avenue (to the left of Union Station), and 4th Avenue (the corridor to the right of Union Station). Photo by BeyondDC/Flickr.

(This piece was originally published in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission.)

For community activists in the Chinatown-International District (CID), the date of March 9 looms large. That’s when Sound Transit will make a recommendation to its powerful board of directors on the location for the new CID light rail station, an anchor for the future line connecting West Seattle and Ballard. On March 23, the board will then pick its “preferred alternative” of four current options, which Sound Transit will write up in its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). As Paul Wu, an architect and cofounder of Transit Equity for All (TEA), says, once the EIS happens, “the train has left the station.”

The location has been the subject of fractious debate and, most recently, a flurry of open letters to the board from community groups. Sound Transit’s draft EIS from January 2022 outlined two options: 5th Avenue and 4th Avenue. A 5th Avenue station would be placed next to the current light rail station and the Historic Chinatown Gate, while a 4th Avenue option would sit a block west, by Lumen Field. The issue is divisive, with Sound Transit trying to simultaneously please activists who want the station on 4th Avenue and ones who don’t want it in the CID in the first place.

As a result of public outcry, the board directed Sound Transit in July 2022 to do further study, and it has since added two new options: north of CID and south of CID (or both).

5th Avenue station option

CID residents quickly blasted the 5th Avenue option. In the public comment period on the draft EIS, Sound Transit received a whopping 5,000 largely negative comments. With posters proclaiming “Save the CID, Move Forward on 4th” plastered around the neighborhood, TEA staked out its position early. “There’s no one that supports [5th Avenue],” said Wu.

Construction would displace up to 27 businesses, including the longstanding dive bar Joe’s Bar and Grill and the Taiwanese teahouse Seattle Best Tea. Although Sound Transit would cover the cost of relocation, businesses struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic would still suffer, says TEA. The Historic Chinatown Gate would remain covered during construction, further harming tourism. For some residents, this sounds like just another disruptive infrastructure project, like Interstate 5 and the Kingdome before it, which cut through the heart of the neighborhood and displaced residents. As community organizer Amy Chen Lozano stated, “They’re trying to shrink us and push us somewhere else.”

Rachelle Cunningham, the public information officer for Sound Transit, could not confirm whether 5th Avenue was off the table, but said, “The board heard loud and clear that people in the community were not happy with the 5th Avenue options.”

Map of Refined 4th Ave Shallow + Midtown Station via report on “CID Further Studies – Workshop 4: Summary.” (Source: Sound Transit)

4th Avenue station option

In its further studies, Sound Transit abandoned 5th Avenue in favor of a revised 4th Avenue station, as well as options outside of the neighborhood. But 4th Avenue entails a massive hurdle; the 4th Avenue viaduct, which ferries tens of thousands of drivers every day, would need to be demolished and then rebuilt. Along with a traffic disaster, it would come with a hefty $500 million price tag. Construction time would also be longer, at around nine to 11 years, while a partial closure of 4th Avenue would last five years.

Brien Chow, a cofounder of TEA, says a longer timeline is worth it to get the project right. If Chinatown misses out on the opportunity to be a hub for the new line, that may harm the longevity and growth of the neighborhood. In his view, “If it’s not built on 4th, no one has direct access to Chinatown from anywhere. That is where the neighborhood will thrive. If it’s not connected on 4th Avenue, the neighborhood will die.”

TEA believes the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has other upcoming projects along 4th Avenue that have yet to be funded, and that bundling the projects could be more efficient and better for the neighborhood. As Lozano noted, “If you can work on these projects at the same time, instead of putting our community in the stranglehold of decades of construction projects, tell us.”

According to SDOT, though, the viaduct was reinforced in 2015 and is not in need of replacement for the foreseeable future. “Replacing a structure is considerably more impactful and expensive than proactive maintenance and/or rehabilitation,” an SDOT spokesperson wrote.

SDOT cautioned that bundling can introduce new complications, too. It cites a longer timeline of 10 to 12 years to excavate and construct the station box on 4th Avenue, and says “significant construction risks” might lengthen that estimate.

There’s another wrinkle: In 2016, King County voters passed the ballot initiative Sound Transit 3, authorizing the West Seattle to Ballard line. But ST3 doesn’t include funding for the viaduct replacement. That money would have to be sought elsewhere, possibly from the federal government.

Despite the challenges, Sound Transit has been refining the 4th Avenue option, shortening both the relocation period for Icon Apartment tenants and the length of the partial closure of 4th Avenue. Sound Transit acknowledges that without strong mitigation, though, an extra 160 to 180 cars might flow into the CID during peak hours. The agency plans to divert traffic to State Route 99 and I-5, as well as designate parts of the CID as local access only. On game days, it might restrict parking in the CID, add parking west and north of Lumen Field, and incentivize public transit and carpooling. Meanwhile, SDOT suggests that until final decisions are made regarding the CID station, it cannot begin planning mitigation efforts.

The 4th Avenue option is supported by groups like Seattle Subway, Historic South Downtown, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, and the Chong Wa Benevolent Association (one of the CID’s biggest family associations). But according to groups like nonprofit research and advocacy group Puget Sound Sage, the vexingly difficult construction just isn’t worth it. Puget Sound Sage’s deputy director, Chrissy Shimizu, points to certain geotechnical studies, commissioned by the City, which illustrate how tricky the terrain is with its infill.

“Why go through all of this trouble in this horrible location to do construction with so many risk factors in place?” Shimizu asked.

Another group clamoring for a station outside of the neighborhood is the CID Coalition, which teams up elderly residents with young Instagram-savvy activists. Riffing on the famous anti-Kingdome slogan “Humbows Not Hot Dogs,” the group calls for “Dumplings Not Demolition.” Since its origin fighting a planned high-rise hotel in 2017,

CID Coalition has perfected a strategy of “packing” public comment periods with supporters.

Nina Wallace, the group’s press liaison, stresses the environmental impacts to a neighborhood that already suffers worse air quality from I-5. She worries that heightened traffic could make the streets more dangerous for pedestrians, especially seniors. Referencing Sound Transit’s pledge to adopt a “racial equity lens,” she said, “If you’re serious about repairing the harm that you’ve already done, I think [you] should be taking into account all of these other things.”

Sound Transit estimates that five to eight businesses would be directly displaced by construction on 4th Avenue. But after talking with small businesses that barely survived Seattle Streetcar’s expansion to Jackson Street, both Puget Sound Sage and the CID Coalition believe the real number could be much higher. This small-business community caters to seniors, and “it’s a very fragile ecosystem that can’t necessarily be replaced,” said Shimizu. Anticipating that a shiny new station could trigger a rise in land values, Puget Sound Sage is calling for a study of how many residents would be pushed out by rising rents. Shimizu worries the neighborhood could hollow out, leading to “cultural displacement.”

There’s a vocal contingent of CID residents who decry both the 5th Avenue and 4th Avenue options. Residents felt forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. “There hasn’t been a lot of clarity from Sound Transit about what all of the options are. For a lot of us, it feels like we’re trying to catch up and understand what’s going on,” Wallace said.

Maps of South of CID + Midtown Station and North of CID (No Midtown) Station via report on “CID Further Studies – Workshop 4: Summary.” (Source: Sound Transit)

North and South station options

In contrast to the proposed 4th and 5th Avenue stations, the north and south options would take only five to seven years to construct, with minimal road closures. The south station would be placed between South Dearborn Street and South Royal Brougham Way, while the north one would occupy part of James Street, next to the Pioneer Square Station.

The south option is dicey, given its proximity to a high-pressure gas line and planned power line. Puget Sound Sage prefers the north option, touting the fact that it would be on publicly owned land, with the potential to build affordable housing. “We believe that the CID deserves the investment of time to make sure that those north options are properly studied and followed through on, because it’s a matter of survival for the neighborhood,” said Shimizu.

However, Sound Transit estimates that daily ridership for the north, south, or north and south options would fall by 4,000 compared with the 4th Avenue one, in part due to longer transfers. With its proximity to Amtrak, a bus base, and Sounder Trains, the 4th Avenue station would be a more natural hub. TEA’s volunteer members worry about the difficulties for travelers hauling luggage, especially those with disabilities. They believe a more central hub at 4th Avenue would be a short-term inconvenience for a longer-term investment in the neighborhood.

Map of North and South of CID (No Midtown) Station via report on “CID Further Studies – Workshop 4: Summary.” (Source: Sound Transit)

Community engagement and next steps

If the Sound Transit board selects either option on March 23, it might direct Sound Transit to create another draft EIS, which would essentially restart the whole process and potentially cause delays in the Ballard to SoDo segment of the line, which includes the CID station. The board chose a preferred alternative for the West Seattle segment in July of 2022, while the Ballard decision is due in March 2023. For her part, Cunningham isn’t sure whether choosing north or south would delay the station’s ribbon-cutting date.

Cunningham describes Sound Transit’s role as conducting studies and outreach at the board’s behest, rather than promoting one option over another. She cites community outreach as a “huge priority,” pointing to the three fairs, five open houses, and over 30 meetings Sound Transit has hosted since July 2022, as well as many email newsletters and social media posts. This is far from the end of public comment, though. Following an open house at the agency’s Union Station headquarters, Sound Transit will present feedback at the board’s Feb. 23 meeting. Even after Sound Transit publishes its final EIS following the board’s March 23 vote on its preferred alternative, there will be more opportunity for public comment before the board makes its final-final selection.

If this all sounds fiendishly complicated, it is. Amid all the minutia, Lozano describes an atmosphere of rumors and confusion in the CID. TEA characterizes Sound Transit’s outreach as insufficient and biased, while Shimizu says “community engagement needs to start a lot earlier.” She believes that toward the end of the process, though, Sound Transit shifted its approach, in part by holding more meetings in the evening as well as midday to accommodate workers, parents, and seniors.

A year after Sound Transit published its draft EIS, the location of the new station is still a question mark. For residents and organizations of the CID, from the smallest mom-and-pop operation to the most official NGO, the stakes are high. Once the board identifies its preferred alternative on March 23, it’ll direct Sound Transit on the “scope and schedule” of its EIS. Only after the board approves the EIS will the City grant permits.

“These decisions are existential. They’re going to impact who gets to live here and who doesn’t get to live here, and who gets to benefit from these infrastructure projects and who doesn’t,” Shimizu said. “We need to have a seat at the table, because it impacts our lives.”

Alison Jean Smith is a programming intern at Northwest Film Forum, a member of the TeenTix Alumni Advisory Board, and a contributor to REDEFINE, an online magazine where she interviews both emerging and established filmmakers. She has also had her writing published in The Stranger and on the doubleXposure podcast website. She is currently studying communication at the University of Washington.

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