There are certain sights and sounds that are ubiquitous in the Chinatown-International District. While brightly colored restaurant facades and the lively conversation of teenagers enjoying a late night bubble tea may still be some of the most common, they are increasingly being rivaled by towering construction cranes and the steady hum of cement mixers. This is because the CID is the site of a number of new construction projects aimed at alleviating the city-wide housing shortage. Due to its proximity to downtown and an abundance of transportation options, the CID has proven to be a popular location for renters and developers alike.
The sheer number of projects that are currently either proposed or underway may give the impression that the CID is in store for a significant transformation. However, the various housing strategies employed by the city, property developers, and non-profits may allow the CID to meet the challenges of the coming decades while preserving its historic identity.
The current restoration work to the former Publix Hotel on Fifth Avenue is perhaps the clearest example of embracing change while holding on to the past. Originally built in 1928, The Publix is set to once again reclaim its status as a thriving center of residential and commercial activity after having sat mostly vacant since 2003. Miye Moriguchi, the development manager at Uwajimaya, has said that “construction is expected to be completed by the end of June or beginning of July” and should be open later in the summer. Between the historic building and a newly built addition, The Publix will offer 100 living units that will have market-rate pricing in addition to 25 that are designated as affordable housing units.
“Every apartment is unique, ranging from small, light-filled studios to large three-bedroom apartments” as well as ground floor spaces “each with its own defining character,” according to Moriguchi. Although The Publix has a history of being utilized by new arrivals and low-income workers, the high demand for affordable housing and access to public transportation might make it an unlikely case for market-rate pricing. Moriguchi contends that “adding to the market rate housing options will only improve the neighborhood’s vibrancy and diversity.”
Similar to The Publix, other historic buildings in the CID are undergoing a process of restoration in order to provide a greater number of housing options for residents. The former Louisa Hotel at 669 S King Street is also looking to reopen their doors after suffering a devastating fire on Christmas Eve 2013. In addition to offering over 12,000 square feet of commercial space, the property will also provide 89 residential units and a parking garage for 25 vehicles.
By renovating older existing buildings, a healthy strategy of integrating old and new will allow the CID to offer better living conditions to its residents without having to sacrifice its historic charm. This strategy also makes sense financially due to the potentially lucrative tax credits available for restoring historic buildings. In fact, Moriguchi estimates that nearly 20% of the costs associated with renovating the historic Publix building will be covered by the National Park Service’s tax credits.
The CID has also seen the recent completion of entirely new construction projects along with more scheduled for the near future. One of the newest buildings in the neighborhood is Hirabayashi Place located at 442 S Main Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenue. Hirabayashi Place provides housing for individuals and families making between 40%-60% of the Average Median Income. The property consists of 96 units of varying size ranging from studios to two-bedroom suites. Some of the data is still coming in, but Jill Wasberg of InterIm CDA has said that many of the residents are local people from the CID and surrounding area. This is important to note as Wasberg has pointed out that “the latest Seattle Comprehensive Plan update identifies the CID as an area of extremely high risk for displacement.”
The dire need for affordable housing options in both the CID and throughout King County is further underscored by the fact that Hirabayashi Place was forced to turn away over 200 applicants. Wasberg feels that Hirabayashi Place and the creation of more affordable housing units will be beneficial for the CID because “if we don’t sustain what we have and work to create more affordable housing rather than sell out to market rate developers, we’ll see displacement, gentrification,” and ultimately “a community not representative of the AAPI people and immigrants of many different backgrounds who made the neighborhood what it is.”
The ground level of Hirabayashi Place will be occupied by the El Centro de le Raza Childcare Center. This facility will be available for residents of the building as well as the general public. The much anticipated opening of the Childcare Center will benefit the families of those working in the area and will promote multiculturalism and linguistic diversity by offering services in Spanish as well as Mandarin. According to Wasberg, the various tax credits received for the center also filled “a financial gap for the project” since “housing financing sources do not cover costs related to commercial space and conventional financing for the commercial space was not an available option.”
While the physical building itself may not be tied to the history of the CID, Hirabayashi Place has made a considerable effort to engage and connect people with the struggles of past generations (specifically Japanese Americans) through public art and educational programs. Collaborative works between the Gordon Hirabayashi Legacy of Justice Committee and the Wing Luke Museum will provide educational installments throughout the building but primarily in the form of a historic exhibit in the main lobby. The building will also be adorned with artwork by Roger Shimomura and Larry Matsuda as well as contributions from Amy Nikaitani, Aki Sogabe, Jonathan Wakuda Fischer, and Tosh Okamoto.
Norie Sato, Chair of the Legacy of Justice aesthetic art and integration team, said that the artist selection committee was “drawn to artists who had some relation to the project—through the incarceration camps, the Japanese American experience in Seattle or even a new generation exploring Japanese American roots.”
It is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current housing issue in King County. The recent housing developments in the CID exemplify the necessity to have a multi-pronged approach. By restoring older buildings, creating new living areas, and attracting new and more affluent residents while at the same time ensuring that those who have always called the CID home are not displaced, there is an opportunity to help to revitalize and strengthen the community as a whole. The sight of construction cranes and the sounds of jackhammers and cement mixers will likely not be going away in the foreseeable future, however, this may be for the best.