Seattle’s Chinatown-International District is a neighborhood that has always faced change from within and without. Much of that change has been related to the neighborhood’s position at a major transportation crossroads in the region. During the era of rail travel the city opted to put Union Station in the neighborhood. As the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation after World War II, Interstate 5 plowed right through the neighborhood.
Now, with the emergence of light rail and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) as strategies to make the city more sustainable, the neighborhood once again is in the middle of change and opportunity. While the preferred mode of moving people has changed from rails to wheels and back to rails again, the greatest asset the neighborhood has is its ability to adapt in the face of pressure to accommodate more residents and commuters. It’s the way land is used in the Chinatown-International District that will trump any shift in transit mode, ensuring that the neighborhood will continue to be a haven for small business, neighborhood character, and ethnic identity.
The neighborhood plan adopted by the City of Seattle describes the Chinatown-International District as:
A community characterized by a sizable elderly population, significant low-income households, and a large number of affordable housing units. We are primarily small businesses as well as social service and community development organizations. We are a delicate social connection for many elderly. We are a regional hub for Asian-Pacific American commerce and culture.
The Puget Sound Regional Council projects that more than 1.7 million people will be coming to the Puget Sound region in coming decades. Does all the growth mean that demands for re-development will, after more than a century, finally overwhelm the distinct quality of the Chinatown-International District? Will TOD open the door to gentrification that will obliterate the neighborhood’s character? It is tempting to think so but it is unlikely. The International District is likely here to stay.
First, changing demographics favor the Chinatown-International District maintaining its place as a regional hub for Asian Pacific Islander (API) commerce and culture. A recent analysis of 2010 United States Census data by The Seattle Times showed that while the API population represents about 4.8 percent of the U.S. population, the API population is much higher in the Seattle area. More than 13 percent of the areas population is API with the Chinese population being the largest part of that growth, increasing by 67 percent.
Second, much of that growth is new immigration, and immigrants use transit. A recent California study published in the Journal of Public Transportation found that “immigrants commute by public transit at twice the rate of native-born commuters, [and] comprise nearly 50 percent of all transit commuters.”
But the study also found that:
Over time, immigrants’ reliance on transit declines. Transit managers would be well advised to plan for these inevitable demographic changes by enhancing transit services in neighborhoods that serve as ports to entry for new immigrants, those most likely to rely on public transportation.
So instead of being the death knell of the Chinatown-International District, transit can be just the opposite, bringing in a new generation of Asian immigrants into the heart of the city and, at the same time, increasing access and mobility to existing residents of the neighborhood. Transit Oriented Development is actually a preservation strategy.
Finally, the character of the built environment and existing uses can be preserved through the development and implementation of a hearty Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program for the whole city of Seattle. A building owner with a historic building could sell her right to develop the property to a greater height or scale to a developer somewhere else in the city who needs additional density for their project. The idea of TDR is pretty simple but would be a challenge to implement. Still, it would allow the city to put more density in parts of the Chinatown-International District but preserve other important, historic buildings and, at the same time, promote density to absorb coming growth elsewhere in the city.
Don Blakeney, Executive Director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), says that light rail is already paying off.
“Thanks in part to the light rail and the more than 70 bus lines that service the neighborhood, the Chinatown-ID enjoys some of the highest pedestrian counts in Seattle, which is great for our local businesses,” says Blakeney. The mission of the CIDBIA is to promote economic health of the neighborhood and improve the overall quality of life in the district for business owners, residents, and visitors.
Blakeney sees things getting better for the community with the arrival of more transit and transit oriented use. “With the incoming streetcar, Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods will soon have fresh access to South Downtown in a way this city hasn’t seen in a century,” he says. More density associated with TOD will “expand this neighborhood from being strictly a destination, to a place where people can visit, but also live, work, and play in the heart of the city.”
Transit projects continue to make the Chinatown-International District one of the premiere transportation hubs in our region. Far from being a threat to the neighborhood, transit can keep the neighborhoods character, economy, and culture healthy and prosperous.
New generations of immigrants and long time residents will benefit from affordable transportation options that make living downtown affordable. A big part of this could be finding ways of allowing property owners to get the economic benefits of redevelopment by preserving and improving their historic buildings and transferring their development potential elsewhere in the city.
This article was written in partnership with the International Examiner.