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THE GREAT MALL OF CHINATOWN

A millionaire tycoon proposes to build a mall — smack in the middle of the International District.

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Annie-Marie Musselman
MAY WAN STOPS FOR A MOMENT AT THE corner of South King Street and Sixth Avenue, in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown-International District. The sidewalks are thick with pedestrians on lunch break and Asian American business people--all of whom seem to be associates of Wan's--hustling to keep their shops and restaurants running. "It's a very fragile community," says Wan. "It needs to keep in balance, like yin and yang. You tip the balance, that's when you get problems."

The way Wan sees it, the balance is about to be tipped big-time. To the west, tall orange cranes loom over what will soon be two new sports stadiums and a redeveloped Union Station with over a million square feet of office space. But more galling to Wan are the construction workers two blocks south, laying the foundation for the neighborhood's first mall.

One year ago, this historical district saw its biggest street protests since the Kingdome was built. More than 500 people turned out to protest the city's handling of a big-wheel developer, and no, it wasn't Paul Allen they were railing about. It was Tomio Moriguchi, the Japanese American CEO of Uwajimaya, Inc., a neighborhood institution for 45 years.

Moriguchi, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Seattle branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, comes from a successful family of Japanese Americans who have built a small empire in Asian foods. In addition to its markets in Beaverton, Oregon, Bellevue, and Seattle, Uwajimaya distributes food and gifts to large retailers, including Costco. The company's $59 million in sales in fiscal year 1996 made it one of Washington's top 150 privately held companies, and the largest Asian food and gift store in the Northwest.

Now Moriguchi is on the verge of building a massive, mixed-use development that will span three blocks in the ID, combining a huge new store with leased retail spots downstairs from 176 market-rate apartments, and an underground parking garage with 365 stalls.

It's important to realize that Uwajimaya is no Fred Meyer. It is a distinctly Asian store, a great place to buy geoduck clams or fresh squid, and it has thrived for a reason. Furthermore, as city council member Richard McIver notes, new market-rate housing in the ID fits nicely with both the neighborhood plan and the city's broader goals to densify the city center, encourage public transit, and promote economically diverse communities.

But the development, Uwajimaya Village, marks a major change for this tightly regulated neighborhood of small-scale businesses set on a classic urban street grid. The new store would be roughly 10 times the size of the average storefront in the neighborhood. More importantly, the development is slated to turn a public street and sidewalk over to the private landowner. The new private path is being billed as a "pedestrian mall," but to Wan it looks like a private driveway into a mall.

At the center of the controversy is Lane Street, a rather homely thoroughfare just south of Uwajimaya's store. Wan says the battle to keep Lane Street has rallied the Chinese American business community to levels of unity not seen in years. She has joined with her colleagues to form a group called Save Lane Street, and they have spent almost $100,000 fighting to keep the street open and public. At each level of government, however--Seattle City Council, Special District Review Board, Hearing Examiner, and most recently, on June 30 in King County Superior Court--they have lost.

Save Lane Street is considering appealing the superior court decision to a higher court. Wan argues that closing off the street eliminates an important route in and out of the neighborhood for both pedestrians and cars, at a critical time when traffic is sure to increase, especially since all the buses that used to run through the underground station across the street will have to return to street level as the new train line is built. "Can you imagine what it will be like once all those things are built, and all those buses are on the street?" she asks. "How is it going to work? It's gonna be a gigantic parking lot."

Wan also worries that the Uwajimaya Village plan will draw pedestrians and customers not into the International District, where she would like to see them, but rather into a new mall that's set within a suburban-style superblock. "What's going to happen to this neighborhood when this great wall is erected with its back to us?" she asks. "How are all these small businesses going to survive? If you choke up the flow of traffic, if people can't get in, the small businesses here will suffer."

For 30 years, the business owners in the International District have had to follow strict regulations to preserve the historical character of their community. Now many business owners feel that Moriguchi is being allowed to ignore the rules everyone else has had to follow, and the city is rewarding him with a public street.

McIver, the chair of the transportation committee, disagrees. He says he did his own research on the subject last year, parking on Lane Street in the middle of rush hour to observe. "I was down there for an hour and a half and I think three cars went by," he says. "I would hardly call that a primary access route." McIver voted for the street vacation last year, and it passed 5-2.

Wan attributes her group's string of losses to Moriguchi's influence. Uwajimaya's people contributed $1,535 to city candidates in the 1997 elections. Both Moriguchi and the company he hired for the project, Lorig Associates, donated the maximum allowable $400 to Mayor Paul Schell.

Inside a small restaurant across the street from Uwajimaya's parking lot, Wan meets Michael Chu, a property owner who has run businesses in the ID for 18 years. Chu once had an opportunity to put a Burger King on one of his properties in the ID, but he was turned down because it was out of character with the neighborhood. Now he shakes his head when he hears that Uwajimaya is considering a McDonald's inside its new mall (the new Uwajimaya in Beaverton contains a Taco Bell and a Burger King). "We just want the same rules to apply to everybody," says Chu. "That's all we're asking."

 

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