A rendering of Jasmine, the proposed 17-story project planned on the site of Bush Garden • Image courtesy of Vibrant Cities

Real estate developer Vibrant Cities maintains that the building housing Bush Garden restaurant and bar — which the developers intend to demolish to build Jasmine, a 17 story building consisting of apartments and ground-floor retail in its place — is in such poor shape that it cannot be preserved or rehabilitated.

During a design review briefing for the project on October 22, members of the International Review District (ISRD) board — which reviews alterations to buildings and new constructions in the Chinatown International District (CID) — said before they could consider the design of Jasmine, they needed more information about why the historic building could not be saved.

Vibrant Cities presented its latest proposals for Jasmine’s design with the understanding that the ISRD board approved of incorporating the western front (facade) of the Bush Garden building into the new project. This understanding was wrong, said ISRD board chair Stephanie Hsie during the meeting.

“We [the ISRD Board] haven’t gotten the information we needed, and in turn we haven’t given you clear enough direction, which has misled you towards moving forward,” Hsie said. “If you had told me at the first meeting that your plan to honor Bush Garden and the history there was just to put the facade back, I would not have been in support of that,” she said.

At previous meetings, Vibrant Cities suggested it would preserve Bush Garden’s western facade. On October 22, Vibrant Cities explained that this would be accomplished by demolishing the entire building, labeling the bricks of the western facade, then restoring them in place in front of a more durable building frame. “The brick will look exactly the same but it’s more safe,” said Bruce Zhong of DCI Engineers, a partner on Jasmine with Vibrant Cities.

A diagram showing How Vibrant Cities proposed to reconstruct the western facade of Bush Garden to incorporate it into the Jasmine building • Image courtesy of Vibrant Cities

Most Board members agreed with Hsie that the proposal to keep the western facade as part of Jasmine did not meet the standards for restoring a historic property, and as a gesture to honor the building’s history and cultural significance, was insufficient.

Instead, board members asked Vibrant Cities to come up with more documentation showing why Bush Garden could not be preserved, and a plan to honor the building’s significance. They suggested that rather than keeping the western facade, it might be preferable to demolish the Bush Garden building completely and start with a new design.

The briefing — which did not involve an ISRD Board vote or action — was held at the Donnie Chin Community Room in Hirabayashi Place. Supporters and opponents of the Jasmine project filled the room beyond capacity. Opponents of the project wore stickers depicting a rendering of the Jasmine tower with a grey, red-eyed monster behind it, and set up signs in the windows saying “Stop vibrant greed, save the Bush Garden building,” while supporters wore white shirts with the word “Jasmine.”

The briefing began with a presentation to the ISRD Board from the development team. Vibrant Cities CEO James Wong said the project was intended to revitalize Seattle’s CID. On recent visits to Chinatowns in Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, Wong felt these once thriving neighborhoods had declined. “Our Chinatown as we know it today must evolve,” Wong said, and “must welcome people of all income levels and people of all ages.”

Jasmine is intended to be “the best Chinese-inspired architectural building, not just in Seattle, and not just for Chinatowns in the U.S., but Chinatowns all over the world,” Wong said.

The proposed project would include a three-story base below the tower, incorporating the western facade of Bush Garden. The other half of the building’s base, or podium — corresponding with what is now an empty basement on the corner of Maynard Ave and South Lane St. — would be three stories tall to align with the old facade of Bush Garden, and constructed of grey Beijing brick.

Chinese-inspired design elements proposed for the design of Jasmine • Image courtesy of Vibrant Cities

Gary Reddick of Otak, the architectural firm working with Vibrant Cities on the project, said the building would take inspiration from Chinatowns around the world, including lattice-work, a round moon gate, and a Chinese-inspired roof. It would be a “tremendous example of a themed Chinese building from top to bottom,” Reddick said.

The proposal also included design elements intended to lessen the visual impact of a 17-story building in the area, which, like the rest of the CID, is characterized by lower-rise buildings. Reddick suggested that in the future, more of the surrounding area could be converted to tall towers, and presented a slide with three other buildings of similar height in the area.

“It’s important to point out, as potentially jarring as this [17 stories] is, we are the first building that’s taking advantage of the development potential,” Reddick said.

Reddick concluded by asking for Board’s input on design features such as the appearance and materials of the proposed tower, the arrangement of storefronts and shops, details about preserving Bush Garden’s western facade, and the Chinese-inspired elements.

Over 30 people signed up to speak during the 25-minute public comment session that followed — far more than the time allowed.

Supporters of the Jasmine project suggested it would improve neighborhood public safety. Felicity Wong, former president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and longtime business owner in the CID said: “If this new building can to help reduce crime, why not support it?”

A woman read a letter supporting the project on behalf of Nora Chan of the Seniors in Action Foundation, saying the project would bring a needed mix on incomes into the neighborhood, and people who would support the businesses there: “This is a win-win situation,” she said.

Some opponents of the project criticized the building’s Chinese design motifs, and Wong’s focus on Chinatown while ignoring other ethnic enclaves like Japantown, Little Saigon, and Manila Town or Filipino Town.

“It’s not about the best Chinatown, because you can go anywhere and you can find a Chinatown,” said Elaine Ishihara, director of API Coalition Advocating Together (APICAT). “Seattle is very unique in that it’s a cross-cultural API community.”

Karen Sakata, owner of the Bush Garden restaurant and bar, said the CID “includes a lot of other people besides Chinese people, and we all live and work together in the same neighborhood, and I don’t feel like erasing 100 years of that history is worth this development.” She added: “Once you lose the Bush Garden building, you’re going to lose a lot of history.”

Karen Sakata (center, holding sign), owner of Bush Garden restaurant and bar, speaks during public comment at the ISRD meeting • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Erin Shigaki of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee spoke about the significance of Bush Garden for Japanese Americans recovering from incarceration during WWII: “It holds our history and it holds us.”

During the briefing with the ISRD, Wong clarified that the reason for Chinese design elements was that the project was located “on Maynard and inside Chinatown.”

“If I was developing in Little Saigon or developing in Japantown, we would make it in honor of Japanese architecture or Vietnamese architecture,” he said.

Others raised concerns about the impact of the project on the neighborhood. Jacqueline Wu of OCA Greater Seattle, and Derek Lum of InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm CDA), said the project would increase property taxes, commercial and residential rents, and in turn displace low-income residents and small businesses. “Allowing the Jasmine project to move forward will set a dangerous precedent for this neighborhood,” said Lum. “Large-scale speculative development such as the Jasmine, driven by profit and not by serving the community, will lead to the displacement of long-time community members, organizations and businesses.”

Tiffany, a doctor at ICHS, said she often serves patients who live in or near the CID, most of whom are low-income immigrants or refugees. “These are people who forgo healthy vegetables because they’re more than 2.99 a pound,” she said. “These are not the people who I think are supposed to be living in the building.” She worried that the higher-income residents likely to move in would not have ties to the neighborhood.

A rendering of Jasmine • Image courtesy of Vibrant Cities

During Board comments for the developer, Hsie said the board needed more information about why the Bush Garden building couldn’t be preserved before considering further design issues like the tower or the Chinese design elements.

Hsie noted that while the Board had received a report showing the poor condition of the building, and had seen the quality of the brick on a site visit in August, the Louisa Hotel, a historic building gutted by fire, was recently successfully rehabilitated, and that DCI Engineers has worked on adaptive reuse projects for historic buildings.

“This board wants to hear why demolition is the only option at this point,” Hsie said. “We’d like to understand why more of this building can’t be preserved.”

One reason for this, Hsie said, is the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation that the ISRD board considers and which apply to the Bush Garden site. The standards, a checklist of criteria for treating buildings, encourage preserving character-defining features of historic buildings when possible.

In an August document provided to the ISRD board, Otak answered questions about how the project meets these standards, writing that the only architecturally “character-defining” feature remaining of the Bush Garden building is the western brick facade.

The Standards also call for repairing “deteriorating historic features” rather than replacing them. Otak’s response was that the project “preserves” the front facade and would repair the brick when necessary.

Board members asked the developers to show what it would take to preserve the building, leaving aside the costs or practicality, including documentation showing what methods they would theoretically use. As Hsie phrased it: “Put your hat on and pretend like you were gonna save the building, and tell us the techniques you would use to save this building, and then demonstrate why in this unique situation, what you’d usually do wouldn’t work.

Reddick said that after examining every component of the building, they had concluded it couldn’t be saved.

“Let’s just take the word ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘retrofit,’ or ‘remodel’ or ‘repair,’” Reddick said. “Every one of those words require that you have something to start with. With the exception of parts of the western facade, he said, “this building does not have one single component that can be reused.”

In response to Board questions about techniques for rehabilitation, Reddick said the wood framing of the building is rotten and the brick is “powder,” and would not be able to hold anchors. “What does it mean to totally rebuild a building from scratch with new footings and columns and floors and whatever? It’s not rehabilitation anymore,” Reddick said.

“I’m frustrated that we haven’t been able to communicate how absolutely terrible this building is,” Reddick said. “I can’t go on having you hold out hope that there’s some part of this building that’s still salvageable.”

Reddick said he always champions rehabilitating historic buildings when possible, and worked on many such projects, mostly in Portland. “I’m not biased,” he said. He said he was “profoundly touched” by “how much sentiment there is for this building.” But “the sentiment, I think, is not for the brick and the window frames themselves, it’s for the chamber of memory that you all have.”

Hsie agreed that it was more than individual bricks that conveyed the cultural significance of Bush Garden, and said it was important that the project honor this significance. “The design that you’ve given us also hasn’t honored what’s culturally and historically relevant about this building,” she said. “I think saving the facade was probably an easy out.”

She suggested the developers present a plan for saving “the shell and the footprint of the building,” or else demolishing the whole thing and building something different in its place. “If you’re telling me that the building cannot be saved, get rid of the facade. Demolish it. You’re already demolishing it. It’s like a false gesture at this point if you’re just going to put the bricks back up.”

Hsie suggested that, given its scale in the location it’s in, Vibrant Cities should go above and beyond in engaging with the community around Jasmine, and creating a project that meets community needs. “What are you doing to promote a welcoming, active, equitable, engaging space?” She encouraged the developers to do more community outreach and stay in dialogue with local nonprofits in the neighborhood. “This is one of those projects that’s gonna take a gesture of some sort to honor the history that’s been here,” she said.

Board member Andy Yip initially said he needed no further information about the feasibility of preserving the Bush Garden building. “We have to bring the district new life and bring in residents,” Yip said. “No project is gonna make 100 percent of the people 100 percent happy all the time.” However, Yip later agreed with other board members that more information was needed.

Board members Yuko Kunugi and Yip agreed that they would be more supportive of the developers designing a new building without retaining the western facade of Bush Garden if it could better honor the history and culture. Board member Tanya Woo said she first wanted to see supporting documentation showing the building can’t be saved before considering other options.

Board members agreed the developers should also present a more thorough historic property report that addresses the historic and cultural significance of Bush Garden, as well as a plan for what the massing and design of the building might look like if they went the route of fully demolishing the building.

For some opponents of the Jasmine project, the October 22 meeting was a contrast to previous ones.

“We were stunned, pretty much,” said Leslie Morishita, real estate development director for InterIm CDA. Morishita thought that unlike at past meetings, board members’ comments more directly addressed concerns from some in the community, such as requesting more information from Vibrant Cities about how the building could be saved, and pointing out the contrast in height between Jasmine and the neighboring buildings.

Cynthia Brothers, a founding member of the CID Coalition, which coalesced around concerns about gentrification and displacement in the CID, agreed that the board’s comments on these issues marked a departure from previous meetings. “Many of us [members of the CID Coalition] did feel more hopeful, as this is the first time a lot of us have seen the board ask purposeful questions and understand the importance and impact of their decisions on the community,” Brothers wrote in an email. “We hope that this meeting will set a precedent for all developments in the neighborhood, that the needs of the community must be taken into account.”

“I don’t think we have illusions that this means they’re going to stop the project,” Morishita said. “Preservation of historic buildings is within their current purview, clearly. So this was something that they could do and comment on. Our other issues about displacement and gentrification are not within their purview.”

For Brothers, the project presents “an opportunity and an obligation to think more expansively, informed by what we know the community needs: more truly affordable family-sized housing and more affordable commercial space for small local businesses.”

Further reading:

Bush Garden to seek new location as site is developed for apartments

Demonstrators oppose demolition of Bush Garden building as review board inspects its condition

Catching up with Karen Sakata about Bush Garden’s move to Uncle Bob’s Place

Rep. Santos addresses claims that husband Bob Santos supported proposed 17-story project on site of Bush Garden

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