Sound Transit heads for fourth as community protests

By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asia Weekly

Attendance was record high at Sound Transit’s July 14 board meeting since the agency returned to in-person meetings. (Photo by Assunta Ng)

The demonstrators had their placards facing the wrong way. So Claudia Balducci, chair of the System Expansion Committee (SEC) for Sound Transit (ST), said, “Please take the time to turn them this way so I can see them. Then she giggled as all the signs flew to face her. “I enjoyed that,” she said. “Thanks a lot.”

Thus, the July 14 meeting began on a tone that seemed to mark a new chapter between the Asian American community representing the Chinatown-International District (CID) and ST, which for more than six months has been working to engage the community as its board of directors. seeks to determine the appropriate location for a new station.

The civility with which Balducci greeted the meeting seemed to create an atmosphere that encouraged members of the community to speak with emotion and seemed to represent a growing sophistication of the engagement between the two parties.

Granted, the transit agency received more than 5,000 comments during its official public comment section, which ended on April 28, and it pledged to address them in the environmental impact statement. (EIA) final. It also held five meetings to receive community feedback on draft EIS, as well as a host of other activities, including an online open house engaging more than 19,500 online visitors, community information, office hours, workshops, advertisements and social media. posts to seek dialogue with the community.

But last week’s meeting was the first time simultaneous interpreters for Cantonese and Mandarin attended. He also came after an in-person walking tour of the CID taken by Balducci and King County Councilman Joe McDermott.

The atmosphere in the meeting room gradually became more boisterous, as the speakers were applauded and then cheered and finally welcomed by the two not only after their speeches but before.

At one point, Balducci gave extra time to a woman who was having trouble getting her instructions through to her interpreter. As the woman tried to understand the flow of Chinese and English, Balducci apparently reset the clock and then froze it, finally nudging her gently to wrap up her comments.

Betty Lau, community advocate and co-founder of Transit Equity for All (TEA), said she wrote Balducci an email thanking her on behalf of the community. “The consideration shown,” she said, “was impressive.”

A new position

A shift has occurred in recent months from most community members supporting a station to be built on Fourth Avenue (ST only offered options involving Fourth and Fifth Avenue with no bypass options) to their current position: a total rejection of any station whatsoever in the CID.

But Balducci encouraged community members to keep coming to SEC and full board meetings, although the official comment deadline has passed.

“Board members will consider public feedback along with their analysis of the EIS project to make a decision on a preferred alternative,” said Rachelle Cunningham, public information officer.

There was indeed a lot to consider after the July 14 meeting. Speaker after speaker moved at a rapid pace, slotting into oceans of commentary about discrimination, inevitable loss and the desire for security, in one-minute slots. A digital timer displayed the seconds remaining during each person’s turn, allowing many to adjust their pace to accommodate all of their feedback.

Some spoke from a distance from COVID isolation or even from the ER.
For the most part, stakeholders requested a new plan that would place a station outside of the CID.

It was unclear if this was in the cards.

In a motion the SEC voted to send to the board for review on July 28, a “Fourth Avenue Shallow Tunnel Option” was specifically named. But the language was slightly ambiguous and still seems to retain the bare possibility of an aberrant reversal to choose a location outside of the CID.

The motion said future alternatives should “include concepts requested by community and agency partners.” These should include “but not be limited to” the Fourth Avenue option.

The motion also calls for a report to be delivered to the board no later than February 2023 on further “studies” to be undertaken and additional “public engagement”.

Shortly before the SEC meeting, the Seattle City Council passed a joint resolution with Mayor Bruce Harrell, also a ST board member, calling on the agency to “respond more fully to community concerns.” concerning the existing alternatives”.

The resolution, however, only mentions the development of “modifications” to the “Fourth and Fifth Avenue alternatives” to reduce the impact on the community.

It does not refer to the current position endorsed by most community members who attended the meeting, which is that ST bypasses CID entirely.

A spectacle of opposition

According to the agency, the reunion had the biggest show of community attendees of any of these venues since ST returned to an in-person format. For about 30 minutes, a flurry of comments protesting the current options erupted.

One speaker referred to the argument made by some that ST is a regional entity and therefore needs to take into account regional concerns.

“Moving a community of color is not regional equity,” she said, adding that CID already had the lowest tree cover and some of the highest air pollution in the city. She asked the board to “reject the Fourth and Fifth Avenue options.”

Chrissy Shimizu, co-executive director of Puget Sound Sage, a community advocacy group, echoed those comments, saying residents of CID have a shorter life expectancy than other parts of Seattle due to decades of environmental injustice.

Adding to past misdeeds by choosing Fourth or Fifth Avenue would “create an unacceptable loss.”

Former Seattle City Councilman David Della described in a letter his family’s long association with the neighborhood and his personal advocacy “to protect and preserve this neighborhood from efforts to disrupt our Asian culture and displace people and businesses that exist” in the CID.

“Frankly, having both the Fourth and Fifth Avenue alternatives on the table is insensitive and an affront to the history and needs of this community, so I urge you to remove [them] of consideration and explore alternative routes.

Frank Irigon, a longtime community activist and veteran, representing the OCA APA Advocates-Greater Seattle Chapter, said the community protested a similar move 50 years ago when the Kingdome was planned.

“This fight is about our civil rights as Asian Americans,” he said, speaking from a distance as he was carried from the emergency room to a hospital bed. “Let’s not repeat history by forcibly removing us from Seattle, but this time on a light rail because of our race.”

Referencing a civil rights song, he described the community as “a tree planted by the water’s edge” and added the refrain: “We will not be moved”.

Others pointed to repeated past injustices, such as the failure of communities of color to build equity at the same pace as the mainstream, if at all.

One speaker said the community would be wiped out.

“The BIPOC community can’t benefit if they’re not here anymore,” he said.

Community leaders decried years of construction, truck exhausts and above-ground vents that will release air from public transit added to street closures and other disruptions they say will kill the neighborhood .

Richard Saguin, owner of a Filipino- and black-owned business, said he “strongly protests” against both options.

“By deciding to dump waste in the heart of our community, you are telling us clearly that you place no value on our lives, our heritage and our culture.”

Other speakers lamented the lingering effects of the pandemic on the neighborhood, as well as Asian hatred.

An advocate for BIPOC community members with mental health issues said low-income housing needs to be close to service providers. Disrupting this network would mean it would “never recover”, she said.

Lydia Lin, the speaker to whom Balducci gave extra time, said the community is made up of many different Asian cultures and thus attracts tourists from all over the world.

She feared the transit plans would “destroy tourism.”

The CID, another speaker said, is “one of the few remaining authentic Chinatowns.”

Gei Chan speaks while Melanie Reffes waits her turn. (Photo by Assunta Ng)

Gei Chan said she grew up in an “all white” small town. She said discrimination kept her from going to school.

“In Chinatown, I feel like I belong and that’s so important,” she said. “I’m asking you to find another location for the station, not the CID. The CID is an important cultural center for me, personally.

As for previous comments, made before the April deadline – and therefore recorded in the DEIS – one speaker said the community at the time preferred Fourth Avenue simply because it was “the lesser of two evils”. .

Inside the Sound Transit meeting room at Union Station. (Photo by Assunta Ng)

But Brien Chow, outreach president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, in an emailed comment, said, “DEIS comments are out there and people have spoken: Fifth Avenue light rail is unacceptable,” referring to the previous wave of comments.

Lau echoed his comments in a statement from a distance, adding, “Do not encroach on the Seattle Chinatown Historic District National Register!”

In another indication of the growing engagement between ST and the community, a speaker thanked board members who visited the area for “caring about the community and the devastating consequences” of current options.

“I invite the rest of the board members to visit,” he said.

To view attendance information for the July 28 board meeting, go to: soundtransit.org/get-to-know-us/news-events/calendar/board-directors-meeting-2022- 07-28.

Mahlon can be reached at [email protected]