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Friday, July 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail to displace Beacon Hill hangout

Seattle Times staff reporter

Since the late 1950s, the South China Restaurant on Beacon Hill has served up chop suey and stiff cocktails, occasionally hosting benefits for local nursing homes and charity golf tournaments.

It's the kind of place that's woven into the fabric of the community, and it's become a second living room for dozens of locals.

But the restaurant at 2714 Beacon Ave. S. and other businesses on the block are scheduled to be demolished to make way for a light-rail station, and neighborhood residents are lamenting the possible loss of one of the area's oldest establishments.

As early as next month, Sound Transit hopes to purchase South China's parking lot to begin soil testing for an elevator shaft that one day will plunge 160 feet underground. By 2003, bulldozers will raze the restaurant and the rest of the block.

Sound Transit already has signed real-estate agreements with private-property owners near the former Rainier Brewery, but the South China deal may be the first property acquired to build light rail in the Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley neighborhoods.

Dan Ko is co-owner of the restaurant, along with his brother and mother. His father, now deceased, bought the business in 1980. The family leases the space from a local landlord.

Sound Transit says it will pay South China up to $10,000 for relocation costs, but Ko notes that he recently spent $10,000 just to have the carpet replaced.

The agency also could buy the business, basing its value on recent years' profits. But most of the money goes into salaries, Ko said, and there isn't much left over.

Ko said he hopes to reopen the business somewhere else, and he's willing to give up his address for the public good. The problem, as he sees it, is that Sound Transit will disrupt the neighborhood in building a light-rail system that he says won't improve regional congestion.

The problem for his customers is more immediate — the loss of a restaurant and watering hole known as much for its racial diversity as its dive-bar ambience.

On a recent afternoon, men and women of all races gathered in the windowless bar to sip drinks and swap stories.

"I've never seen a more integrated establishment," said patron Greg Gillow. "Part of it is the (diverse) nature of Beacon Hill, part of it is this establishment. This is the hub of Beacon Hill — the center of the mandala."

Gillow said he's been a regular at South China for two decades and never seen a barroom brawl, although every once in a while an old-timer will pass out and slide off his stool.

"The bar portion leans a little on the seedy," chuckled Neil Wilson, president of the North Beacon Hill Council. "But it's a local business that's been here a long time, and a lot of people use it."

A Sound Transit supporter, Wilson said light rail will be a big boost for the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, agency officials said they are committed to finding South China a temporary parking lot and, eventually, a new location.

"We want to keep them in business as long as we can," said Sound Transit project manager Mike Williams.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com.

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