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Some thoughts on the Chinatown-International District Station planning debate

Seattle Bike Blog is not where people usually go to read about light rail station placement debates. But as a Seattle resident who cheers for both an affordable and thriving International District as well as the best transit service we can create, it’s been tough to watch the conversation about station planning for the second downtown light rail line splinter the way it has. And the concerns raise questions that go beyond just this one station, calling into question people’s trust in our region’s government agencies’ abilities to deliver on their promises and lofty equity language.

First off, here’s a very high-level and over-simplified summary of the options. Until very recently a shallow or perhaps an even-shallower 4th Ave alignment has been the leading option for a station on the new light rail line through downtown headed to Ballard. New downtown stations would be at 4th/Jackson and 5th/Marion.

Map of the 4th Ave shallow option.From a perspective that prioritizes transit system functionality above all else, a 4th/Jackson station makes a lot of sense. It connects to King Street Station, the Sounder Platform, many buses on Jackson Street and the existing Chinatown-International District light rail station. It even connects to the streetcar if that ever becomes an important transit service worth its investment and headache (foreboding).

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But in recent weeks, momentum has quickly grown for an option that would place new stations on the south end of the ID on 6th Avenue South near Seattle Boulevard and at 5th Avenue near James Street utilizing King County property. This option would use Pioneer Square Station for light rail transfers, but would not directly connect to King Street Station or Sounder service. Deleting Midtown Station at 5th and Marion also has significant implications for station access on First Hill and the retail core of downtown. The 5th and James Station would directly serve Seattle City Hall, which is nice, it would also require walking a couple very steep blocks to reach bus service on either 3rd Avenue, Jackson Street or Madison Street (including the under-construction RapidRide G bus). The idea of a 6th and Seattle station is intriguing because there is a lot of potential for change there, but there are also rail lines and freeway-style roads that may limit usability.

Map the north and south of CID options.So, the choice is pretty obvious, right? Well, if you stand out at 7th and Jackson under the deafening roar of I-5 and next to the streetcar tracks delivering disappointingly little value to the neighborhood, then maybe you will get an idea of why many people in the International District don’t trust that the benefits of this new station will actually help keep this unique community together. In both the distant and recent past, transportation infrastructure projects from I-5 to I-90 to the streetcar have come at the cost of the neighborhood, not for its benefit.

“Sound Transit cannot let our treasured Chinatown International District (CID) become collateral damage for yet another regional infrastructure project, when there is a better alternative,” wrote Christina Shimizu, Bettie Luke and Binko Chiong-Bisbee in an op-ed for NW Asian Weekly. “But that’s just what will happen if 4th Avenue and Jackson is torn up for a decade or more—to build a new CID station on the Ballard to West Seattle light rail extension.”

In the 1960s, I-5 was routed straight through the neighborhood, including the historic heart of Nihonmachi (Japantown) on South Main Street. Then after a long and bitter fight, the neighborhood eventually lost the fight against I-90, which demolished even more of the International District during the 1980s. That wasn’t very long ago. Then Sound Transit partnered with the City of Seattle to build the First Hill Streetcar on Jackson Street, a project that only existed because the agency cut the promised First Hill Station from the 1 Line route. Construction for the streetcar was drawn-out over two years, and without the Center City Connector streetcar the line just isn’t a huge benefit to the neighborhood. Instead, the tracks have proven to be dangerous to people biking, causing many serious injuries and one death since they were put in place in early 2014.

Sound Transit says that 4th Ave station construction is expected to last for ten years. That is a very long time. The street won’t be closed the entirety of those ten years, but there will still be disruptions that will make it harder to access businesses by any mode. Given all the construction delays the agency has faced, it makes sense to be worried about long construction disruption timelines. The agency needs to do better about laying out exactly what the expected impacts would look like and how they could mitigate or shorten them as much as possible. Right now, that level of details just isn’t available.

But the longer-term worry is that not only will smaller businesses and vulnerable residents bear the brunt of the construction harm, but then the new station will increase the cost of living and force out lower-income residents through capitalistic forces. As a city and region, we talk a big game about investing in affordable housing and celebrating cultural heritage, but where is the comprehensive plan to prevent post-construction gentrification of the International District? Are we going to invest in affordability there, or are we just going to say that we should and then not do it? People’s trust in our local governments to address runaway housing costs is very low, and lip service is not going to cut it.

As a region, we should be able to build the best transit options as quickly as possible while also creating programs to support small businesses during construction and maintain (or improve) housing affordability. That should not be too much to ask, and the public needs to be able to trust that our agencies can deliver.

Perhaps my favorite quote that I found doing the research for my book was from Zoë Dusanne, a founding member of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP and the city’s first modern art dealer. In 1950, Dusanne built an art gallery and home on Lakeview Boulevard on the hillside where Capitol Hill met the Cascade neighborhood. Just ten years later, the state’s Highways Department was condemning her property and forcing her to take less than what she paid to build it because it sat in the path of I-5. She was interviewed for a 1959 Time Magazine story about freeways disrupting neighborhoods and gave an amazing quote: “I’m a great fan of progress. But what a pity progress has to cost so much.” She tried to create a new gallery, but it never worked as well as her displaced gallery did.

A light rail station is not a freeway. I want to be clear about that. Unlike a freeway, a light rail station truly can be a benefit to a neighborhood. But it is a major transportation project that has impacts beyond its promised benefits, and it is reasonable for people to question who will reap those benefits once they arrive in the still-distant future. The International District is a unique and irreplaceable neighborhood that has had a very rough history with big transportation projects and is facing major economic challenges as the heartless capitalistic process of gentrification threatens its existence.

It may be a good idea for the Sound Transit Board to take more time to get this right because both options on the table have serious issues. And the package of solutions should probably involve multiple levels of government, not just the transit agency. Because it’s not just the transit service that is at stake.

Building a better 4th Avenue South

One final thought that I haven’t seen mentioned a whole lot: 4th Avenue South near the International District sucks. It’s a bad street. It’s big and fast and difficult to cross, especially when combined with the rail lines next to it. The status quo for that street is not acceptable, and the neighborhood deserves better. Even without a stadium event there is already big demand for crossing between Pioneer Square and the ID, and the single pedestrian overpass at South Weller Street is not good enough. It leads to stairs, which means accessibility relies on the elevator being in service. The pathway to get there also feels like an afterthought rather than an important part of the neighborhood.

So one big potential benefit of a 4th Ave station is the chance to reimagine how a remade 4th Ave could improve walking, biking and transit access for the neighborhood. There are also opportunities for expanding public space. The view of downtown from 4th and Jackson is surprisingly great if you don’t need to focus on the traffic. So if a 4th Ave option goes forward, I think remaking the street should be a bigger part of the conversation.

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6 responses to “Some thoughts on the Chinatown-International District Station planning debate”

  1. eddiew

    https://seattletransitblog.com/2023/03/21/a-single-downtown-tunnel-is-completely-possible-and-provides-the-best-outcomes/ Some on the Seattle Transit Blog suggest a third option: use the existing DSTT more intensively and NOT build the second downtown tunnel of ST3 at all.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Given the options we’ve seen, especially the N/S CID option or the very deep station designs, the no-build option is intriguing. I’m not an expert on tunnel capacity stuff, though, and there is a benefit to redundancy. But also, one of most exciting parts of the second tunnel was that Midtown Station to serve First Hill. The 5th/James Station isn’t nearly as exciting since it’s not so far from the existing Pioneer Square Station. Perhaps this is another reason to delay the vote and get a better understanding of all the trade-offs. Now that we know more about the downsides of the second tunnel options, maybe upgrading the existing tunnel could be appealing. I don’t know.

  2. NickS

    I think the best option is to build at 4th & Jackson, and simultaneously invest in and protect the community — Sound Transit should negotiate with landlords to enact rent controls, do what they can to lessen impacts on businesses and shorten project timelines. Bad station / line placement is (near) forever and we should go with the best option for transit long term, even if it hurts the Chinatown / ID community in the short term.

    I say this as someone who has seen what the short-sighted, much cheap(er) decision to run light rail at grade through Rainier Valley has done — cut neighborhoods in half, jeopardize pedestrians, and impacting the entire systems reliability when collisions occur. Even if the accident doesn’t involve a train, a collision at any intersection of MLK from south of Rainier Beach station to north of Columbia City station can and will impact trains if cars or bits of cars block the tracks or accident investigations are underway. At this point, I think everyone recognizes this is the weakest and worst part of the system, but it’s near impossible to replace; it would require enormous funds to replace an existing “working” segment, and would likely disrupt service for the length of the project.

    Let’s not make this mistake again

    1. peri hartman

      Excellent points. It seems odd that ST plans to take 10 years to build a station. That must be a record.

  3. Bruce Nourish

    LOL, I’m so old I remember when it was racist to skip majority-minority neighborhoods when building major public transit infrastructure. The mere fact that skipping the ID is a likely outcome is symptomatic of the intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary leftism.

  4. eddiew

    A parallel comment to Bruce’s. On proof of payment fare collection, the policy makers lost track of their fractions. When ST fare inspectors cited proportionally more fare evaders than they represented in the population it was said to be disparate impact. But we want the portion cited to be the same as those attempting to evade. We also want to acknowledge that more riders from poor and minority households benefit from faster transit due to fare inspection; most of them do not attempt to evade fares. We want both fast fare collection and humane fare inspection.

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