Washington's Chinatown in flux

Updated: 2015-01-12 14:50

By HUA SHENGDUN in Washington(China Daily USA)

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Chinatown Market has witnessed the changes of Washington's only long-preserved Chinatown the past 20 years.

With fewer and fewer Chinese neighborhoods and consumers, the store, located at the corner of Sixth and H Streets NW, is facing a possible crisis because of an ambitious urban redevelopment project.

Monument Realty, the property's owner, made a proposal to renovate numerous lots in Chinatown. Approximately 150 new residential units and ground floor retail space also are anticipated, including "a community oriented first-floor space to be operated as an Asian Cultural Arts Center", Pam Zandy, marketing manager of Monument Realty, told China Daily.

"We intend to preserve nine of the 10 existing buildings on the site," she said.

In May, Monument Realty and Hickok Cole Architects proposed a 10-story retail and residential building. The project would create 80,000 square feet of office space and up to 19,000 square feet of retail space on H and Eye streets NW.

Bounded by Sixth, Seventh, H and I streets NW, plans also include the renovation and alteration of nine buildings, the rehabilitation of one 19th century building on H Street, and the demolition of a five-story alley warehouse.

One concern from the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) was that the reconstruction would fail to fit in the existing historic neighborhood.

During a previous hearing, the board raised concerns about the height, setback and size of the new building on existing alleys.

"I think it's just the overall context of the proposal, and it just may be a little bit too aggressive for the historic fabric of the neighborhood," said board member Andrew Aurbach.

Besides the HPRB process, Monument Realty and Hickok Cole have two more steps before the project is passed. One is approval from the mayor's agent for demolition of the alley warehouse, which designated a historic building. The next is approval from the Washington City Council to close the alley for the construction of the pedestrian bridge, according to a media report.

"Once we obtain the HPRB approval of the concept design, we will request a mayor's agent approval to demolish the remaining building," Zandy said. She said that Monument Realty has been working on incorporating the board's direction.

She said the development would "bring new life to the Chinatown area and bring back the Chinese influence, which has faded over the years due to big-box retailers and national chains moving in."

However, except for the traditional Chinese gate, the Friendship Arch at H and Seventh Street NW, the DC Chinatown is decaying in the eyes of local residents.

Fewer than 15 restaurants and businesses are run by Chinese Americans, with only four traditional Chinese food shops, including the Chinatown Market. The number was 20 one year ago.

"In recent years, we sell fewer and fewer Chinese foods," said the Chinatown Market shopkeeper. "Because more and more, residents are moving away from here, and thus customers are seldom Chinese."

There were 3,000 residents in Chinatown, and only 21 percent were Asians, in sharp contrast to 1990, when 66 percent of the residents there were Asians, according to the 2010 census.

Traditional Chinese shops have been sold to the property's owner and will reopen with new non-Chinese businesses, although there will be Chinese-language signage in the area under the city's regulations.

"No matter if it's foods or other cultural aspects, Chinatown has lost its original flavor," said Wang Zhen, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University from Beijing.

"I hope something will not change, and Chinese cultures be well preserved here," she said.

Yang Sheng contributed to this story.