Bush Garden, one of the first places in the state to offer karaoke in English, has long been a community gathering space and a place to have a good time • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Bush Garden, one of Seattle’s oldest Japanese restaurants and karaoke bars, has stood at the edge of the Chinatown International District (CID) since 1957, serving as community hub and a place to have a good time.

In a few years, Bush Garden might be replaced by 17 stories of apartments.

The historic building containing Bush Garden is owned by real estate developer Vibrant Cities, which plans to demolish most of it to build a housing project named Jasmine. James Wong, CEO and co-founder of Vibrant Cities, wanted the Bush Garden restaurant and bar to be part of the new building.

But in November Karen Sakata, who has owned Bush Garden with her husband since 1997, decided she’ll find a new location for Bush Garden. Sakata doesn’t want to keep the restaurant in the ground floor of a towering, mostly market-rate apartment building, the type of project she worries will change the CID neighborhood for the worse.

In a few years, Bush Garden might live on in two places: As part of a wall preserved in the new Jasmine building, and as a new business somewhere else in the neighborhood, if Sakata can find the right location.

Bush Garden is operating on a year-to-year lease, and Sakata anticipates it will stay open while Vibrant Cities goes through the design and permitting process for Jasmine.

Vibrant Cities has built condos in West Seattle, apartments in Capitol Hill and Portland, and plans to build projects in Queen Anne. The company bought the Bush Garden building and the warehouse next door in 2016 for $7.5 million, according to King County records.

That year, the restaurant almost closed for good, but in the end Sakata kept the bar open. In 2017, Bush Garden reopened with an updated menu and decor.

At the end of 2018, Vibrant Cities applied for a certificate of approval from the International Special Review District (ISRD), which regulates new construction in the neighborhood, beginning the process of design review.

This means Jasmine is in its very early stages, and it’s too early to say what percentage of it will be condos or apartments, said Wong, Vibrant Cities CEO in an interview in an office Vibrant Cities rents next door to Bush Garden. It’s also unclear how much of it will be affordable housing.

Wong said he wanted to work with Karen to give Bush Garden a place in the new building. But in November, Sakata declined to sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding declaring her intentions to stay.

“I really thought about it and I thought, I don’t think it would really be right for us to be in a 17-story building and I don’t agree with the concept of the 17-story building,” Sakata said. “It just doesn’t fit with the neighborhood.”

And for Sakata, Bush Garden is the embodiment of 50 years of history of the CID neighborhood and immigrants in Seattle.

Bush Garden technically falls outside the boundaries of the semi-protected historic district, but only because of an arbitrary quirk of history, Sakata said. “This building has just as much significance as the building next door.” The upper floors almost contain untouched relics from the restaurant’s history, and the remnants of tiny rooms from the 1910-era building, which was once a historic hotel.

Bush Garden is housed in a 1910-era historic building • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Bush Garden was founded by the late Roy Seko after he returned from incarceration in Minidoka concentration camp during WWII. In the 1960s, it was an exclusive, lavish restaurant frequented by celebrities, politicians and business people. For decades it was also a “small Japanese village,” Sakata said, host to weddings, fundraisers and funerals, and a sanctuary for immigrants who could feel at home in their familiar language and cultures. It also served as a gathering spot for politicians and activists. The late CID activist and leader Bob Santos, a regular there, is now a permanent presence in cardboard cutout form. And as possibly the first place in Washington — or even the United States — to offer English-language karaoke, Bush Garden has always been a place to have a good time.

“I think there is magic in the space,” said Cynthia Brothers, co-founder of the activist group Humbows Not Hotels (also known as the CID Coalition), and creator of the Vanishing Seattle social media project. “I think for a lot of people it’s just about the fact that Bush is threatened when there’s so many people that still go to it, love it — it was instrumental in their growing up, it’s so important in the history and the legacy of not just the ID, but larger city of Seattle.”

Members of Humbows Not Hotels — whose name comes from Santos’ memoir about his fights to preserve and revitalize the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s — have closely observed new developments in the neighborhood, including Jasmine. Members have met with Wong to share concerns, printed “Save Bush Garden” T-shirts, and in December organized a bingo night to support the restaurant, featuring drag queen Atasha Manila.

“Why does it have to be this way that another institution that we love is going to turn into something shiny and new that’s out of the reach of most folks who go to the Bush now?” Brothers said, in an interview after one of Humbows Not Hotels’ regular meetings at Bush Garden.

Members of Humbows Not Hotels share Sakata’s concerns about the possible impacts of building 17-stories of mostly market-rate housing in the CID — a height without precedent in the neighborhood. “I think there’s something about the height that can feel disconnecting with the neighbors and community,” Sakata said.

Jasmine isn’t the only large market-rate project coming to the neighborhood. Others on the way include a 16-story mixed-use building with a hotel, condos and apartments, and a 18-story condo project.

An influx of tall market-rate buildings like Jasmine could contribute to gentrifying the CID neighborhood if they don’t provide community benefits, according to Leslie Morishita, head of real estate development at nonprofit housing agency InterIm Community Development Association (CDA)

“I wouldn’t say this project is going to cause gentrification in this neighborhood — I would say this project is indicative of what the trend is, and the trend is gentrification and displacement,” Morishita said. “It’s part of this trend and this dynamic of bringing in these large, speculative developments that do not serve the community, do not have the interests of the community in mind and really are just development and money-making opportunities.”

InterIm CDA has shared concerns and ideas with Vibrant Cities about how the project might work with existing small businesses, and keep the commercial spaces on the bottom floor of the building affordable for tenants, Morishita said.

Bush Garden exterior • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

While it’s too early to know many of the details about Jasmine, InterIm CDA would support any new project that helped fulfill its goals for equitable development, Morishita said. These goals include advancing economic mobility for the neighborhood, preventing displacement, honoring neighborhood history, and improving the health and safety of the neighborhood. However, Morishita acknowledged that no 17-story project, by definition, would be fully compatible with InterIm’s desired qualities.

“Tall market-rate developments can pay more for the land, because they make more, because they charge more.” It becomes a feedback loop, Morishita said; the more large, market-rate projects are built, the more likely they’ll attract more market-rate developers to the neighborhood. “One project alone isn’t going to kill the neighborhood, but 10, 15 giant projects, and we look around and say, ‘Oh, this is a different neighborhood.’” Morishita said.

And while Morishita said the neighborhood needs a mix of market-rate and low-income projects, InterIm CDA is concerned about the snowballing increase in large market-rate projects. Between 2008 and 2013, the International Special Review District received five applications for new constructions. Since 2014, it has received 15, most of them for housing.

The CID was identified by the City’s 2035 Growth and Equity analysis as an area with a high risk of displacement. According to 2010 data, 95 percent of the neighborhood rents, and it has a higher poverty rate than the rest of the city.

“I’m concerned for the district, for the story that it has, for its authenticity as a neighborhood, and I think there’s other ways to do development that are more respectful of all of that,” Sakata said.

Brothers and other members of the CID Coalition want Wong’s project to address the needs of low-income people in the CID, and for him to take seriously the concerns that the project will contribute to gentrification and displacement.

“Things can’t stay the same,” said Wong of how the CID is changing. “Buildings get older. You need to invest in the neighborhood.”

Wong said his local ties and life story set him apart from other developers in the neighborhood.

For example, he wants to bring micro-retail businesses run by immigrants to the bottom floor of Jasmine. “Good food for good deals, entrepreneurs who can make a living for their families,” Wong said. It’s something he believes an outside developer would never think of.

Wong said it’s a way of honoring the legacy of his father, who ultimately failed to run a large restaurant in the CID. Wong and his parents arrived in Seattle from Hong Kong in 1982 and settled in Beacon Hill. Wong remembered crossing the bridge from Beacon Hill, where the family lived in a run-down place he felt ashamed of, to his father’s restaurant. On the way, Wong marvelled at the buildings downtown. When he was 10 years old, he said, he decided he wanted to build housing in the CID that people would be proud to live in.

Wong said his fondness for the neighborhood inspires him to build here, despite it being more expensive and controversial than building somewhere else. “I’ve always wanted to build in Chinatown because I want to add to this neighborhood,” he said. “I understand the heritage, I understand what makes this neighborhood tick.”

James Wong, CEO of Vibrant Cities • Photo courtesy of Vibrant Cities

Wong said his dream is to build a projects where multiple generations can live in the same neighborhood and visit each other. Tenants might include “young urban professionals who maybe work at Amazon or somewhere downtown, and they want to live in the CID,” and empty-nesters who want to move from Beacon Hill or the Eastside. They could live near their grandparents at one of the retirement homes in the neighborhood — like International House, where Wong’s grandmother lives.

Wong believes Jasmine will help revitalize a relatively empty corner of the neighborhood. It saddens him to hear people say they don’t want to come to the CID because they don’t feel safe there. “The way to make a place more safe is by bringing more people to it,” Wong said. “We want this to be a destination place, versus just an empty place, a scary place that no one goes to.”

The urgent question for members of Humbows Not Hotels is how much affordable housing Jasmine will have. The project will need to follow the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements, which means either paying into a fund for the City to build affordable housing, or building between five and 11 percent of its units to meet a percentage of median income. Most likely, Jasmine will follow the latter option, Wong said.

But Vibrant Cities is a for-profit developer, and Brothers and Coalition members worry that most of the housing won’t be affordable for the typical person living in the neighborhood.

“I love James’s story about his passion for why, but again he’s not building housing for families that were like his family,” Sakata said.

Jasmine won’t be financially possible unless it’s mostly market-rate housing, Wong said, because of the high costs of building in Seattle. “We have to make it pencil,” he said. “We definitely want to do well and design a building that’s acceptable and works in the neighborhood and all that, but ultimately, can it be built? Can it make financial sense?”

Wong noted that Jasmine will not displace low-income housing, and said there’s a drastic need for more housing supply to meet demand in Seattle. “The fact that we’re adding, let’s just say a couple hundred units, more livable units inside this area, I think that’s a great thing for everybody.”

“We do need more housing, that’s very obvious,” said Marlon Herrera, a member of Humbows Not Hotels. “Why do Magnolia and Blue Ridge get to keep their perfect neighborhood while we get displaced?” Members of the group are not NIMBYs opposed to any new development, Herrera said. “But we’re saying that we want to reduce the burden on the people that have had the burdens for generations.”

Members of Humbows Not Hotels are also concerned about Wong’s community outreach.

Wong said he met with over 30 community members, but members of Humbows Not Hotels said it’s not clear what they discussed. Brothers believes Wong misleadingly listed her name on a presentation. The slide in question shows Wong met with her, but Brothers said it gave the appearance that she had endorsed the project; Wong removed it from subsequent presentations.

For a time, Vibrant Cities used the name Bush Garden Homes for the project, but Vibrant Cities does not own the Bush Garden business. Wong said the project was originally called Jasmine, and for a time he called it Bush Garden Homes to appeal to people’s nostalgia. “I didn’t know there was any copyright to it,” he said. When he received pushback, he reverted to the name Jasmine.

“He’s mainly interested, in my opinion, in the history and the stories and the personal attachments and community attachments to Bush Garden to the extent that he can mine those stories and make it a marketing tool for his project,” said Brothers.

Members of Humbows Not Hotels believe that despite his ties to the neighborhood, Wong is behaving like any other developer. “You can’t just say, ‘I am one of you, so support me without question,’ without any kind of reciprocity or any genuine investment in the community and in the future of the community,” said Nina Wallace, a member of Humbows Not Hotels. “If you claim a connection to this neighborhood, that comes with a responsibility.”

Wong believes Jasmine will be a positive addition to the neighborhood. He wants to look back in 30 years and be happy he helped add housing and immigrant businesses to the CID. If Jasmine wasn’t so meaningful to him, he said, he wouldn’t be expending four or fives as much effort and cost he said it takes to build in the CID. “If I wasn’t passionate about this, I would have been like, you know what man, there’s enough risk in this business already, let’s go do something somewhere else,” Wong said. “But I want to make a difference to this community.”

Sakata has a different vision. In a perfect world, she would restore and renovate Bush Garden, maybe use the second floor stage for performances. She remembered chatting with the bartender at Bush Garden one day when the lottery numbers were high. Sakata and the bartender both knew exactly what they would do if they won: Buy the building back, and fix up Bush Garden.

Sakata is facing big logistical challenges: How to dismantle and preserve some of the historical decor in Bush Garden, where to find a new space for the restaurant and bar. And big existential ones: How to keep Bush Garden as a community touchstone, with the same feelings and stories, if it continues on in a new space.

“I really kind of struggle with, what’s the most important thing to carry on if we’re going to carry on, because we can’t be everything, and time doesn’t stand still,” Sakata said. “Life changes, and what’s the thing from the past to the present to the future that we would want to be carrying forward?”

Drag queen Atasha Manila performs at Bush Garden on December 6 • Photo by Carolyn Bick

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