After four decades of toiling at the frontline of major projects that have injected new life into the fragile International District, Paul Mar announced his retirement last month.
Mar, director of real estate development at the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), said his goodbyes at a low-key, but emotional gathering of veteran community leaders and young community activists at the Eastern Café on December 18.
“Paul is a humble, optimistic, brilliant determined man,” Maiko Winkler-Chin, SCIDpda executive director, said, summing up the sentiment of many others who have worked with him through the years. “He has never forgotten where he has come from and has helped so many, including myself.”
Sue Taoka, who preceded Winkler-Chin as executive director at SCIDpda, said Mar’s “calm and wise demeanor” helped prevent many potential disasters at the agency. “I was banging on tables and contractors were yelling at me, then Paul would step in and calm the situation with pastries and wisdom,” she said. “He was our Jedi!”
Mar, 75, said he had wanted to retire for the past three years, but “the timing wasn’t right.” He reassured friends and community associates that he would “still be coming into the SCIDpda office one to two days a week,” but that it was time for him to take care of “personal matters” he had put on the back burner. “Beyond that,” he added with a wry grin, “it’s time to slow down a tad.”
Since the 1970s, Mar has been a perennial lead player in negotiating the delicate rebirth of the International District. After the construction of the Kingdome in 1975—a decision met with fiery opposition from community activists and social service advocates who pointed to traffic impacts, loss of affordable housing, and the fragile historical character of the International District—Mar entered the fray, rolling up his sleeves, working with others to find ways to protect and restore the neighborhood.
Operating out of the limelight, Mar has supervised key construction projects, served in non-profit board leadership roles, brokered relations between testy community activists and indifferent city bureaucrats, and mentored a new generation of idealistic young leaders.
“Paul is one of our iconic community builders,” said Teresita Batayola, CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS). “He selflessly injects his personal and technical skills into situations and helps make collective visions come to life.”
Mar describes himself “a native son of this community,” pointing out that he spent his first two years living in the back of his parents’ business on Maynard Avenue, the Excel Barbershop, in the spot currently occupied by the Purple Dot Café.
“They ran it from the mid-1930s to 1943,” Mar said. “Then dad had someone else come in there, and he went to work in the shipyards until the end of World War II. Mom was at the barbershop until we bought our house in the Central Area. Then she became a stay-at-home mom.”
Mar attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, Washington Junior High, and Garfield High before enrolling at the University of Washington, earning a degree in engineering. He moved to Southern California and worked for six years as an aerospace engineer before returning to Seattle to pursue his MBA and a second career as a management consultant.
Working through the Seattle Office of Economic Development, he helped Wai Eng and Gan Sun Lew secure bank loans to establish restaurants in the International District in the mid-1970s. He also counseled the group that established SCIDpda in 1975 as a community-controlled public agency to help remodel and manage historic buildings in the area.
Later serving on the board of SCIDpda, Mar helped bring to fruition the construction of International District Village Square I, a $21 million project with 75 apartments for frail seniors, a childcare center and shared space for social services. The project, completed in 1997, was the largest public-private development in the history of the neighborhood.
“Paul committed his time and expertise to make sure the project would move forward with the proper support,” Taoka said.
Mar became a staff member at SCIDpda and helped shepherd to completion the complex second phase of Village Square, which consisted of a community center, the ID-Chinatown library, 56-units of low-income housing and underground parking.
Mar also took responsibility for figuring out how to fix the Bush Hotel after it was badly damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The landmark hotel, built in 1915, serves as home base for SCIDpda and provides offices for several core social service agencies in the District. “For those who knew the obstacles to getting the repairs done in compliance with historic preservation requirements that were in direct contradiction with structural building requirements know that Paul performed miracles of Jedi magic,” Taoka said.
Mar served on the board leadership team at the Wing Luke Museum during its ambitious $23 million capital campaign to convert the East Kong Yick building into a museum to help anchor the revitalization of the historic King Street Chinatown core. Mar still serves on the Wing Luke board.
Mar cites the ID Village Square and the Museum as two of his proudest achievements. “Both were landmark projects that made a statement for the community,” he said. The biggest challenge with ID Village Square was trying to contain the costs of the City-owned community center during the design phase. “They wanted the world, but you’ve got to pay for it,” he said.
Mar said the biggest challenge with the Museum was raising $23 million, a 10-fold expansion in space for a relatively small community-based institution with a small budget. “We didn’t know how to do it and how hard it was going to be,” he said. “But we kept pushing.”
Says Beth Takekawa, executive director of the Museum: “Paul’s unusual knowledge, contributions, and connections enabled him to inspire and inform his fellow board members to persevere and complete the historic campaign to transform the East Kong Yick building into a permanent home for the Museum.”
What’s next for Mar as he begins to “slow down a tad bit”? He says he’ll be serving as “strategic advisor” for a new program to support frail seniors who are nursing home-eligible, but want to stay in their residences. The Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly—best known nationally by its acronym PACE—provides comprehensive medical and social care in a community setting and is supported by Medicare and Medicaid.
Mar recently completed a preliminary feasibility study to develop a PACE program in the Asian community. ICHS and Kin On Health Care Center have agreed to partner on developing this program, first pioneered in San Francisco Chinatown in the early 1970s.
“The PACE program is near and dear to my heart because it serves the elderly through health care and is a much needed service in the community,” Mar said. “The next step is finding a location to develop this. It will take about three to four years to get up and running. The plan is to first get into an existing building and get started. Long-term, the facility might include housing and retail activity in addition to health care at the same site.”
Beyond working on the PACE program, Mar says he’ll “still be hanging around” the neighborhood, working with the next generation: “I would like to be remembered as a team player, as a person who was not afraid to take on meaningful challenges and as someone who truly enjoyed supporting the community.”