The streets of Chinatown would look like any old dilapidated D.C. blocks if not for the handiwork of Alfred Liu, an accomplished artist and architect. On spiffy new brick sidewalks, Liu’s delicate etchings of animals from the Chinese zodiaca menagerie of monkeys and horses and pigs and tigersgrin and strut and leer and leap. Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Beef Palace bears Liu’s touch, a blood-red and burnished-gold façade crowned by a pagoda that has little to do with cuisine.
Even if you speed past Liu’s flourishes, you can’t miss his permanent contribution to Chinatown’s identity: the Friendship Archway, the massive, multihued span towering over H Street NW in the heart of Chinatown. Its 170 tons of riotous pageantry dwarf Washington’s last surviving ethnic neighborhood. Nearly 300 painted dragons crowd the polished panels, and the roof is overlaid with 7,000 glazed tiles.
Like Liu’s vision for the neighborhood, the arch is outsize, a monolith heralding a sprawling ethnic community that didn’t exist when the arch was built and hasn’t developed sincedespite construction of the $200 million MCI Center nearby. Of course, the arena has spun off a number of construction projects. Workmen lay smooth black asphalt on H Street and raise dust along 7th Street, the site of a forthcoming row of nightclubs and brew pubs. Everyone from Mayor Marion Barry to Abe Pollin lauds the spinoff development, but no oneexcept Liuagonizes over how it will mesh with Chinatown. Once a mélange of ethnic mom-and-pop shops, Chinatown now hosts the two most recognizable marquees of chaindom: CVS and Starbucks. Unlike the dynasties of China’s past, Chinatown lacks the cultural strength to conquer its invaders.
Chinatown’s homogenization is turning Liu’s pet design flourishes into so many paste-on Fu Manchus. And the trend is now threatening to steamroll Chinatown’s last undeveloped public property, a vacant parcel owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) above the Gallery Place/Chinatown station at the very foot of his beloved archway.
The site resembles any other abandoned city lot full of scrub weeds and mud and trash. Liu, however, sees the 1.7-acre property as the final battleground in his war to mold the community in his vision. That’s where he wants to put his dream project, the China Trade Center, an office and residential complex that he claims would provide the “critical mass” that Chinatown so sorely lacks. Not exactly something out of Blade Runner, but close: In a proposal submitted to Metro nearly two years ago, Liu sketched elaborate plans for an Asian-style megafacility including a 300-room hotel, 180 condos, high-tech offices, exhibition halls, karate studios, and a 600-car garageall under a huge pagoda roof and decked out with the usual Liu architectural flourishes. No detail is too small for Liu’s would-be crown jewel, right down to the project’s color scheme: bright greens, golds, and reds, the traditional Chinese colors symbolizing hope, wealth, and happiness.
Liu’s proposal didn’t impress Metro authorities. What did horrifies Chinatown’s most stubborn defender.
You don’t need to know much about “Gallery Place at Chinatown” to realize it doesn’t have much to do with China. That’s the namethe last in a list that includes Sportsworld USA and Gateway Squareof the entertainment complex that D.C. developer Herbert Miller has won approval to build at the Metro site, which lies at the corner of 7th and H Streets in the heart of Chinatown. The complex would house a mammoth 30-screen movie theater, retail stores, 120 apartments, and a 900-car garage.
Liu says that the complex would destroy what little remains of Chinatown, driving out the small businesses and restaurants that have somehow managed to survive decades of urban blight and incompetent planning. According to Liu, the mall-like project would turn the neighborhood into another faceless conquest of corporate America. And with Union Station’s movie complex just two Metro stops away, Liu claims that the location doesn’t even make business sense.
But that’s not all. Miller’s complex, Liu claims, would scrap the Ward 2 Comprehensive Plan, which advocates “protect[ing] and enhanc[ing] Chinatown as Downtown’s only ethnic cultural area.” The plan endorses development schemes to “maintain and expand the existing concentration of retail uses emphasizing Chinese and Asian merchandise and related wholesale operations…”
If Liu has his way, Miller’s Western Development Corp. won’t get its chance to dilute the neighborhood’s existing concentration of Asian businesses. Earlier this month, Liu filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court claiming that Metro showed favoritism by choosing the proposal submitted by Miller’s Western Development group. Among other charges, the suit alleges that Metro chose Western because of the political connections of its principles. Miller is former chairman of the Interactive Downtown Task Force, partner Lehr Jackson developed Union Station, and partner Fred Greene is former director of the District’s Office of Planning. (Miller did not answer calls for comment on Liu’s suit.)
Miller’s project, says Liu, would make a farce of Chinatown at its ceremonial gateway. “A lot of people, including my close friends, say, ‘Alfred, forget it. You’re spending all this energyyou can find another piece of land in another place. Why do you need to fight it?’ Originally I took this attitude, too, but finally I can’t sleep at night. It bothers my conscience, so I’m gonna fight it in court.”
The irony is not lost on Liu that a firm named Western has been selected to determine what is best for Chinatown’s last public parcel. This is no mere legal skirmish for Liu; it’s nothing less than a campaign to repel a developer who views the neighborhood as a cash cow, not a cultural treasure. “It’s a sin to take this land for a movie theater,” he says.
In the late ’60s, District authorities were drawing up plans to build a convention center somewhere in D.C.’s old downtown. One of the proposals advocated essentially removing Chinatown from its nine-square-block real estate to make way for the new complex, which would supposedly revitalize the entire area.
At the time, Liu was a recent graduate of Columbia University’s master’s program in architecture and planning; for him, Chinatown meant Bayard and Mott, not 7th and H. Nevertheless, Liu and a contingent of students came down to Washington to help save Chinatown. “I saw a gross injustice in Chinatown, so I fight,” he says. “It’s not with a profit motive that I fight, but to get justice.” With the help of other Chinese businessmen, Liu killed the proposal to relocate the community.
Liu says he felt attracted to D.C.’s tiny, fragile Chinatown because he believed he could make a differenceand he stayed on to start his career in the District. He now runs his own Foggy Bottom architectural firm, one of the District’s most successful Asian-owned businesses. He has designed massive projects all over the Far East.
Ever since he helped protect Chinatown from the wrecking ball, Liu has sought ways to fortify it from within. His China Trade Center is a downsized version of a failed project that still haunts him, the Far East Trade Center he first proposed for the Metro site more than a decade ago. The ’80s real estate bust, among many factors, doomed that project, but Liu says his new proposal is a can’t-miss proposition. He has backing from one of the country’s largest developers, Trammel Crow, and tenants from all over the Pacific Rim ready to rent office and living space. The only problem is that his bidthe only one that would enhance Chinatown’s cultural heritage, he sayswas rejected.
But, as the Metro bidding dispute has shown, Chinatown’s cultural heritage has a puny constituency. Linda Lee, owner of Hunan Chinatown, remembers how the crowds came and cheered when the Friendship Archway was first dedicated and then how empty H Street was again the next day. “We became like a ghost town,” she says. “People like [Liu] want to have every day be like Chinese New Year, and that’s very unrealistic.”
Lee is a businesswoman and lawyer who has little time to invest in symbols and cultural nostalgia. She can’t even summon praise for the arch, which she says dropped several large decorative carvings onto the sidewalk in front of her restaurant in the mid-1980snot the sort of welcome she wanted for her customers.
Liu’s proposed China Trade Center doesn’t impress Lee any more than the arch. Chinatown, she says, is more of a tourist oddity than an authentic ethnic community. According to her, Liu would no sooner fill his center with Chinese businesses than replace MCI Center hot dogs with kung pao chicken. “People keep bringing all their projects, but I’ve seen too many projects fail,” she says. “All these people trying to achieve their dream at our expense, I’m against that. You know, we have to live with the consequences.”
Still, Lee is by no means against Western Development’s proposal. A big movie complex sounds fine to her, as long as it draws moviegoers the way the MCI Center attracts spectators. She says she’s in favor of any project that will bring in more business. For the practical Lee, the neighborhood must survive economically if it is to survive at all; otherwise, all of Liu’s talk of a culturally preserved Chinatown is a moot point. “Chinatown is just a geographic identity,” says Lee. “You cannot say Chinatown only belongs to Chinatown. We don’t have enough Chinese population in this town to support that.”
Duane Wang, head of the Chinatown Steering Committee, says that any project that helps bring in more business is good for the neighborhood, no matter who proposes it. “Everybody should have a chance,” he says. “We’re not just limited to Chinese people or to Mr. Liu. We want to make Chinatown more attractive to all people.”
Wang applauds Liu’s history of activism, but he says it’s time to get realistic about the future of Chinatown. “He is a good guy, very brilliant,” says Wang. “But he cannot stand on a dream. You’ve got to stand on the ground and try to do something. He lost the chance the last time.”
But the last time, there was no MCI Center, the District was on its way down, and development financing had dried up. Now, says Liu, the economy is chugging along, and Asian businesses are itching to set up offices in the nation’s capital.
“This is the last opportunity for Chinatown,” he says. “I have a mission. I’m not going to let them destroy Chinatown.” CP