The Chinese Gate on King Street South.  Photo credit: Joe Copeland/Crosscut.
The Chinese Gate on King Street South. Photo credit: Joe Copeland/Crosscut.

There isn’t anything particularly unique about South King Street in the International District. Empty lots, restaurants, and various other businesses line the street that serves as the heart of Chinatown in Seattle.

But two years ago, after nearly a decade of planning and work, part of Chinatown got a makeover when Seattle’s first historic Chinese gate was completed in the neighborhood.

Now, efforts are under way to install a second Chinese gate in the neighborhood farther east on South King Street. The proposed locations, however, have brought up concerns in the surrounding communities about whether or not neighborhood boundaries are being respected.

The Historic China Gate Foundation — a group of business leaders in the International District — came together in 1999 with the hopes of completing two traditional Chinese gates to serve as landmarks in Chinatown. The goal of the project was to improve not only the aesthetic of the area, but to promote the prominence and contribution of the Chinese community in Seattle. After nearly a decade of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fundraising, the first gate was completed in 2008 on South King Street near Fifth Avenue South.

Members of the Historic Gate Foundation say that planning for the second gate is still in preliminary phases and no location has been selected yet. However, two locations are being considered: One is at Eighth Avenue South and South King Street, just west of I-5, and the other is at Twelfth Avenue South and South King Street, which is technically in Little Saigon, a Vietnamese neighborhood.

The proposal of this second location in Little Saigon, while not set in stone, has some members of the Vietnamese community upset about the perceived lack of communication in the planning process.

Quang Nguyen, a board member of the Washington Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, said he first heard about the proposed location in Little Saigon through word of mouth about three months ago.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Hey, did you know they’re planning to put another gate up at Twelfth and King?’” Nguyen recalled. “When I realized where it was, I immediately thought it was absolutely the wrong place to put the gate.”

Quang, along with others in the Vietnamese community, feel that Twelfth Avenue South and South King Street would be the wrong place to put the gate because it is essentially in the heart of Little Saigon, and two blocks east of the dividing boundary provided by I-5.

A potential site for a second Chinese Gate is at Eighth Avenue and South King Street in the International District. Photo credit: Joe Copeland/Crosscut.
A potential site for a second Chinese Gate is at Eighth Avenue and South King Street in the International District. Photo credit: Joe Copeland/Crosscut.

Tuck Eng, president of the Historic Gate group and a lifelong resident of Seattle, is well aware of the boundary issue. In fact, Eng and the other eight members of the Historic Gate Foundation say that their ideal location for the gate would be at Eighth Avenue South and South King Street, just a few blocks over, but there’s a problem. The business and property owners adjacent to that intersection have not given their approval for the project, whereas over at Twelfth Avenue South, the property owners have said they would have no complaints. Despite the intersection of Twelfth Avenue South and South King Street being in Little Saigon, the property owners there are Chinese.

Just a few blocks west over at Eighth Avenue South sit the Four Seas Restaurant and Wing Luke Museum. Eng said he has approached the property owners at those locations several times during the past six months, but they have not given him their consent to move forward, because they say they may want to further develop the property in the future and worry that a large monument across the street may impede their ability to do so.

One important thing has changed, however, since the last gate was planned that could allow Eng to bypass the property owners. This would require Eng and the rest of the board to go straight to the city’s Department of Neighborhoods to make a recommendation to the Seattle City Council — a move that may be more political than Eng had originally anticipated, but necessary to avoid conflict with Vietnamese community members in Little Saigon.

When the Historic Gate Foundation set out on their mission to complete the two gates in Chinatown more than a decade ago, they were paving the way in setting policy for improving the International District.

“We were pioneers,” Eng recalled of the process to get funding and approval for the gate through the city. “They really didn’t know what to do with us.”

The Historic Gate Foundation underwent a complicated, seven-year process of raising funds and obtaining permits. Even now, after the first gate has been completed, the foundation has had to continue to fundraise to pay to maintain the gate and cover insurance costs. The city refused to accept the gate as a gift due to the liability and maintenance costs. The cost to the Historic Gate Foundation is just under $10,000 a year with an additional $50,000 kept on retainer in case the gate should be abandoned and need to be torn down by the city.

This has not dissuaded the foundation, though, as it held its first fundraiser event at the end of October, raising about $20,000 to handle these costs as they move forward in finding seed money for the second gate.

However, since Eng and the other members of the board played the roles of pioneers in the process for street improvement the first time around, they may find the process this time to be more involved, since the city has had time to formulate a strategy for such improvements.

“There’s a whole new process for street improvement permits and how those are coordinated,” said Angela Steele of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) in a phone interview in December.

This new process involves applying for a street improvement permit, creating an environmental impact statement, and getting recommendations from the Seattle Design Commission all before SDOT drafts a resolution that would have to go through more final reviews before being put up for public comment.

“I don’t think the first gate went through this level of detail,” said Steele, who had only learned of plans to put in a second gate earlier this month.

Steele said if the Historic Gate Foundation went through all of these steps, then the adjacent property owner approval would not be required and that the property owners on their own would not have veto power over the project.

However, Steele noted that the foundation would “definitely need certificate approval from the International District Review Board, who would consider the businesses individually.”

The foundation’s Eng is anticipating that the Review Board and Department of Neighborhoods will not approve the plan unless adjacent property owner approval is procured. “That’s the neighborhood’s discretion,” Eng explained by phone earlier this month. “The last time, you had to at least get the owners to approve.”

However, even though Eng says this is the process they had to go through the first time, city officials maintain that Eng and the rest of the Historic Gate Foundation do not need approval from the property owners to move forward — they simply have to get approval from the International Special Review Board. The International Special Review Board will likely take neighborhood sentiment into consideration, but does not require property owner approval. This potentially sets aside Eng’s and the Historic Gate Foundation’s reasoning for looking past the intersection of Eighth Avenue South and South King Street.

Rebecca Friested of the Department of Neighborhoods confirmed this last week. “There is no language in the land use code that addresses property owner consent,” Friested said. “The Department of Neighborhoods doesn’t have any authority to waive that requirement.”

The Historic Gate Foundation will need to meet with the International Special Review Board before it can go any further with planning a location for the gate.

While the second gate is still in its conceptual phases and is a long way from even being started, Nguyen says it is still important for the Historic Gate Foundation to involve other members of the community in the planning process — especially Vietnamese members from Little Saigon.

Eng says he understands this concern. “We don’t want to be antagonistic,” Eng said when asked about the prospect of placing the gate in Little Saigon.

But Nguyen noted that the Foundation has still not contacted anyone in the Vietnamese community directly about their plans. “There’s more of a political hope that they have to be mindful of which community they’re in,” Nguyen said.

Northwest Vietnamese News interviewed numerous Vietnamese business owners about the possibility of a historic Chinese gate in Little Saigon. Those interviewed were unaware of plans to build a second Chinese gate, and the majority were opposed to the gate’s proposed location at 12th and King.

“Compared to the Chinese community that has been here for a long time, the Vietnamese are a more recent immigrant group. We must still have our place and our culture,” said Dr. Huy Hoang of Jackson Vision Clinic. “Although the businesses here are small, they need to be preserved and survive so that the Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese in International District can be strong together in forming the International District.”

“I don’t want a Chinese Gate to be built here, and I don’t want Little Saigon to be encroached,” said Xuan Lan Pham of Dr. Pham Medical Clinic. “Little Saigon needs to be treated fairly in the International District. This is an area with at least three different communities, it’s not just Chinatown. The Vietnamese must be able to exist equally in this area.”

“I am completely against this idea of building the second Chinese Gate more in Little Saigon,” said Minh Nguyen-Wichman, who serves many Asian clients at International Community Health Services. “The International District encompasses multiple ethnic communities. Chinatown is only one part. I propose the Vietnamese community display more Little Saigon signs and other large Vietnamese signs to mark the residential and business activity of the Vietnamese here.”

Some Vietnamese business owners were more reticent in expressing their opinion.

“I don’t have an opinion, but of course I cannot support this project financially or in spirit,” said Nam Phuong, owner of Nam Phuong Bookstore.

“I feel sad because there are a lot of difficulties on Jackson Street. We are not the property owners, so my opinion doesn’t really matter,” said Minh Nguyen of Lemongrass Restaurant. “All the construction, development in this area is up to the landlords, not to the people who lease space and do business here.”

In the meantime, Eng says the foundation plans to approach city hall with the project soon, probably after the holidays. During this visit, Eng says they will also ask for about $300,000 from the city for general improvements to the whole area.

“We’re trying to work up a new group … to improve the whole area — a team that will recommend and prioritize programs … whatever the community thinks they should do,” Eng said.

How representative that group will be of the communities within the International District and the effect it will have on the plans and location for the new gate remain to be seen. But one thing is certain: Efforts to improve the International District will continue.

“Our main objective is beautify the whole area up to (Twelfth Avenue South),” Eng said. “It’s a mess up there.”

This story originally appeared in Northwest Vietnamese News. Reprinted with permission. A Vietnamese version of this story is available on Kim Pham of Northwest Vietnamese News contributed to the story by interviewing the Vietnamese business owners in Little Saigon and Minh Nguyen-Wichman.

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