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Business: Friday, December 26, 1997

Change Is Coming To International District -- Village Square May Expand Boundaries, Revitalize The Area

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The old man limps and needs a cane to walk. When he makes his daily rounds in his International District neighborhood, it always takes at least two traffic lights for him to cross South Jackson Street. The drivers whiz by, too impatient for the white-haired man. He waves his cane, muttering in Tagalog.

Bob Santos cannot resist the urge to help the old-timer cross. He knows, day by day, the International District is getting busier and more difficult for the elderly to make their daily rounds. He also knows he can't help them all.

That is why Santos, who grew up with his father in a single hotel room in old Chinatown, is impatiently waiting for the completion of Village Square, a place where making the rounds in the district won't mean having to cross the street.

For the past year, Village Square has been sprouting at Eighth Avenue South and South Dearborn Street, the southern edge of the International District. Community leaders say it will be a place where the old live, the young play and businesses thrive.

Not long ago, the site was a graveyard for old bus shelters, and Village Square was considered a pipe dream, another squishy idea destined to remain on the drawing board. With persistence, political maneuvering and the blessing of Buddhist monks, Village Square is scheduled to open in the spring three blocks south of South King Street, where Chinatown originated decades ago.

Village Square planners say the $19.5 million, five-story, 100,000-square-foot complex, the single biggest development ever in the neighborhood, is the next anchor for the International District. It will house several social-service agencies and a day-care center, and be home for 75 elderly people.

The social-service agencies - with about 225 employees - would annually serve 27,000 people, mostly immigrants and people with low incomes.

The complex also will feature new retail stores.

The arrival of Village Square cannot come too soon for its many supporters, who see it as the salvation of a neighborhood becoming increasingly isolated by the construction of new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks, and the redevelopment of Union and King Street stations.

While those high-profile projects have the potential to change the characteristics of the International District drastically, Village Square gives the neighborhood cultural permanence, said Santos, a longtime community activist.

"So much is going on in the ID, it's frightening," said Santos, now the Northwest-Alaska-area administrator for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The two stadiums, King Street station and Union station will bring in a heck of a lot of people."

In doing so, he said, they could turn the neighborhood into a tourist trap instead of a community.

The heart of the International District has shifted several times. In the 1920s, the Chinese settled into apartments, dined in restaurants and shopped in grocery stores along South King Street. The Japanese established their own turf on South Main Street and Maynard Avenue South. When Vietnamese refugees settled in the district in the 1980s, the neighborhood's border shifted east in malls built along the 12th Avenue South and South Jackson corridor.

"I see Village Square pushing the edge of where the ID is located," said Wing Luke Museum Director Ron Chew, whose father was in the restaurant business in the ID. "People no longer see the boundaries as being still."

In every other city, Chinatowns disintegrated because of a shortage of expansion opportunities, said Ben Woo, former director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, which will own and manage the complex. In cities like San Francisco and Vancouver, neighborhood leaders created satellite Chinatowns, robbing the communities of their cohesion.

"The people there outgrew their Chinatown," Woo said.

S. King Street still the core

While the International District has expanded, South King Street has remained its core, alive with restaurants and souvenir shops. But many of the buildings' upper levels need major renovation, which will cost millions of dollars.

This older section of the ID is "still frozen with a wait-and-see attitude," Chew said. "Whether Village Square moves them to do anything is the big question."

An invisible wall went up in the ID when the Kingdome was completed in 1976, said Jimmy Mar, proprietor of Yick Fung and Co., one of a handful of businesses that has survived through the decades.

"No one came anymore. There's not enough parking," Mar said. He looked grimly around his storefront, where the shelves are tidily lined with glass jars filled with dried ginger and mushrooms, and where customers know they can purchase red good-luck envelopes for Asian New Year celebrations.

With the building of the new stadiums and the redevelopment of the train stations, Mar fears old Chinatown will be left behind or squeezed by the competition.

"Developers want to come over, and the next thing you know, we'll have no old Chinatown," Mar said. "Day by day, Chinatown is changing."

Woo said the International District is going to change because it has to. The property between South King and South Dearborn streets, where Village Square is located, is ripe for development, he said.

Village Square will spark development on South King Street and force building owners into action, Woo said. "Competition will push them to redevelopment. Somebody has to bite the bullet and maybe tear one or two of them down and replace them."

In many ways, Village Square is simply a central location for social-service agencies scattered throughout the district and short on space. The complex will be the new home for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the Denise Louie Education Center, the International District Clinic and Legacy House, which will manage 75 studio apartments for the elderly.

The agencies plan to collaborate on fund raising and save money by not duplicating services, said Sue Taoka, executive director of the preservation and development authority.

Funding for the project totals $7 million from Seattle, King County and state governments; $9 million in tax-exempt bonds and low-interest loans, and $3.5 million from a capital campaign. That makes it the largest public-private partnership in the district's history.

Santos thought of the idea of Village Square in 1974, when he headed the district's preservation and development authority. But construction didn't begin until two years ago, when workers cleaned the site - soured after years of diesel and other fuel spills. When the cleaning began, Buddhist monks in flowing tangerine robes blessed the land and chanted prayers.

During chicken dinners with hot tea, a small group of community leaders had bandied about several ideas of what the site should be. There was talk about opening a hotel. Later, some fancied the site for a new post office. Discussion also included leasing storefront space to Starbucks and other popular eateries. And there was always concern that the city would continue to use the site to store bus shelters, repair vehicles or do other dirty work.

"We didn't want that," said Tomio Moriguchi, chairman of Uwajimaya, "but we had to figure out what we wanted in its place."

Discussions ongoing

Even now, there is a constant discussion about what the site should mean for the neighborhood.

Moriguchi views the site as an anchor for the social services, but not its economic core.

"It's an important border, but it's not going to be the center of the universe," he said.

Others see the village as a milestone for the district.

"When established, it can be the voice for Asians and Pacific Islanders," said Garry Tang, director of aging-and-adult services for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

For all the talk and dreaming, ensuring housing for the elderly has been key to the project. When Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market were renovated, Santos said, longtime residents were displaced.

"The goal is to preserve the neighborhood for people who live here," Santos said. "This is still their community."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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