Chinatown Advocate Recalls the Good Fight

Posted February 20, 2009 at 3:21pm

Alfred Liu, a local architect and city developer, once talked about making Chinatown a popular tourist stop and the bedrock of Chinese culture in downtown Washington. But that was some 20 years ago.

Since then, the Chinatown neighborhood has been the beneficiary of a booming economy that brought in chains such as Clyde’s, Starbucks, Bed Bath & Beyond and Urban Outfitters, a shift that increased rent and pushed out a number of small Chinese restaurants.

The resulting change is “a very sad story,” Liu said. “Chinatown businesses cannot survive because it’s not Chinatown.”

Chinatown’s story didn’t start out this way. Liu’s involvement in Chinatown began in 1971 when he heard that city officials were planning to relocate the tiny neighborhood to make room for a new convention center.

Liu, 66, who at the time was living in New York volunteering in the Big Apple’s Chinatown, felt a stronger desire to help out Washington’s fragile Chinese community. He packed his bags and embarked on a journey to save D.C.’s Chinatown from extinction. “New York was too big. I wanted to help the Chinese in Washington. It was a small Chinatown. It needed help,” Liu said.

Liu said he met with then-Mayor Walter Washington, but the appointed executive had little say over the relocation because at the time, Congress and the president had greater control over city affairs. He then spoke to Members of Congress and rallied residents to protest the move.

By 1972, Liu had succeeded in convincing officials to back away from their plans to move Chinatown out of its current location. His success at keeping it in place earned him the reputation as the go-to man for everything concerning Chinatown.

In 1976, he formed his own engineering firm, AEPA Architects Engineers P.C.

One of Liu’s first architectural successes was Wah Luck House — the last low-income housing building to be erected in Washington. Liu said he designed the building in three days and built it in seven weeks to meet a Housing and Urban Development deadline that would allow the building to qualify as a low-income residence.

Liu wanted to make a bigger statement. He initially planned to have as many as 12 miniature Chinese arches placed throughout Chinatown, with each arch showcasing the 12 Chinese zodiac symbols for every month, including a dragon, monkey, rat and snake.

However, city officials balked at the idea and compromised on a single arch that would be placed at its current focal point. In 1985, Liu designed the “Friendship Archway” to celebrate the friendship between D.C. and its sister city, Beijing. The structure was completed one year later. Spanning H Street at Seventh Street Northwest, the archway is the largest Chinese arch in the world.

But Liu was not finished there. His big dreams of turning Chinatown into a grander thematic neighborhood took shape in his master plan to remake a 1.7-acre vacant lot that was owned by the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority into a massive residence, retail and office complex.

The plan was to transform the vacant lot into a vibrant center offering food, clothing, entertainment and work all in one place, but with a Chinese flair that Liu said the community desperately lacked.

“This would have made Chinatown,” Liu said.

The plan did not succeed, Liu said. Mayor Marion Barry instead opted for a sports and entertainment center — today’s Verizon Center — that would house the city’s basketball team. The Washington Bullets, renamed the Washington Wizards, played at the time in an arena in Prince George’s County.

Frustrated that city officials scrapped his plans, the man who once tried to save Chinatown from Washington has since moved on to other things.

Liu has been involved with designing projects in the city and in China, including the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington and Chang Jiang Cement Factory office building in Hainan, China.

“Chinatown is the way it is today because of the greed of the others,” said Liu, speaking of local officials wanting to bank on the neighborhood’s downtown location instead of preserving its Chinese culture. “Chinatown cannot survive.”