International Special Review District

The International Special Review District (ISRD) is one of Seattle's eight historic districts. It is a collection of early 20th-century commercial and hotel buildings that serves as the center of Seattle's diverse Asian American community.

The District was established by the City of Seattle through an ordinance in 1973 to preserve the District's unique Asian American character and to encourage rehabilitation of areas for housing and pedestrian-oriented businesses. The Seattle Chinatown National Register Historic District is located within the International Special Review District. Its listing on the National Register testifies to the important contributions of the Chinatown/International District area on a national level.

Translation and Interpretation for Meetings

The ISRD Board recently expanded their language access at International Special Review District Board Meetings. For more information read the news release.  
English  | Chinese/繁體中文  |  Vietnamese/Tiếng Việt

Hybrid Meetings Offer In-person and Remote Participation

The International Special Review District (ISRD) Board will begin offering in-person public meetings to be in compliance with House Bill 1329. These meetings will also accommodate remote public attendance via the WebEx videoconferencing platform. Although public meetings must be held and staffed at a physical location, members of the ISRD Board, community members, and Certificate of Approval applicants will have the option to remotely attend meetings if they wish to do so. This new hybrid meeting format will provide increased accessibility, making it easier for community members in the Chinatown International District to participate and engage in the work of the ISRD Board.

Simultaneous interpretation is still available in response to language access needs within the Chinatown International District. Instructions for accessing a meeting will be included on each agenda. For more information contact Rebecca Frestedt, coordinator for the International Special Review District.


History of the International District
(From the "Walking Tour of the International District in Seattle" written by the Wing Luke Asian Museum, with added text by the City of Seattle.)

Seattle's International District, a neighborhood nestled south of downtown, is the cultural hub of the Asian American community and home of the city's Chinatown. It rose not far from the waterfront, on reclaimed tide flats.

During a gigantic city re-grading project, completed in 1910, this muddy wasteland was filled in with earth, buildings were erected and the International District was born.

It is the only area in the continental United States where Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, African Americans and Vietnamese settled together and built one neighborhood.

In the beginning, sojourners from Asia -- mostly single men -- came by steamship and rail into the new port city, seeking refuge from poverty and war. They crowded into hotels, storefronts and employment halls which emerged near the railroad station and waterfront.

These men came when the city was young, and worked in the gambling places, laundries, hotels, restaurants, shops and canneries. They lived frugally, finding comfort in familiar surroundings, shrouded from the harsh discrimination outside. Later, when the laws permitted, they brought wives and relatives to make permanent their stake here.

First, the Chinese built Chinatown, anchored along King Street. a gathering point, marketplace and home for laborers from the villages. An earlier Chinatown located near Second Avenue and South Washington Street, had been pushed aside by a major street extension in the 1920s.

The Japanese developed a Nihonmachi or Japantown near Main Street, just north of the new Chinatown. The Japanese businesses -- restaurants, bathhouses, laundries, dry goods stores and markets -- vanished when their owners were herded off to internment camps during World War II. The Filipinos, the third Asian group to arrive, found their way into area hotels, seeking connections for work in the canneries. Some operated cafes, pool halls, barbershops and other small businesses. African Americans also settled in the area, establishing diners, groceries, taverns, tailor shops and nightclubs. For many years, Seattle's after-hours jazz scene thrived on Jackson Street.

After immigration quotas opened up in 1965, new Chinese arrivals, including families, began to repopulate area hotels. But the decision to build the Kingdome on the western edge of the District, coupled with the construction of the Interstate 5 freeway, created a threat to the area's survival. By the early 1970s, over half of the area's deteriorating hotels had shut down, and many longtime businesses had moved out of the area. During this time, young Chinese, Japanese and Filipino student activists, rallying under the banner of Asian American unity, led a fight to reclaim the area. They lobbied for low-income housing, set up bilingual social service programs, and formed a public corporation to preserve and renovate historic buildings.

In 1973 the International Special Review District and Board were established by Ordinance (SMC 23.66.302) to promote, preserve and perpetuate the cultural, economic, historical, and otherwise beneficial qualities of the area, particularly the features derived from its Asian heritage.

College-educated Asian American professionals --lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists and social workers --set up offices in the former haunts of their parents and grandparents.

With public funds, hotels and streets were refurbished, new senior apartments were erected, and community-based service centers were established. In the 1980s, refugees from Vietnam opened restaurants, markets, and clothing and jewelry stores. Many set up shop in old buildings and newly constructed malls near 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street, forming a Little Saigon neighborhood. Others opened in storefronts in the core of the International District. With the expansion of business activity, the eastern boundary of the District moved beyond the freeway.

Continuing waves of immigrants from all over Asia have helped keep the District alive along with the individuals and organizations that have historically been committed to the neighborhood's welfare. Seattle's building boom of the 1990s has not left the District untouched. The decade brought significant change to the physical development of the neighborhood. The Kingdome was demolished to make way for two new stadia. The area near Union Station has been developed for office and commercial uses. Large scale development projects (institutional, housing, retail, and mixed-use) have occurred throughout the District. Several buildings have been rehabilitated and put back into productive use, providing low-income housing.

Even with the new growth and changes, the District remains as one of the few ethnic neighborhoods in Seattle. An old community --bustling with history and culture -continues to survive into the next generation.

Certificate of Approval must be issued before changes can be made to individually designated City Landmarks or to properties within the City's eight historic districts

Refer to the District Guidelines and other relevant resources for information regarding design standards and other considerations.

Please consult the Guide to Acing the Certificate of Approval Process before starting the online application process. For help with the online submittal, watch this How-To video.

The following changes require a Certificate of Approval to be issued by the Board and the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods before the City will issue any permits:

  • Any change to the outside of any building or structure.
  • Installation of any new sign or change to any existing sign.
  • Installation of a new awning or canopy.
  • Any change to an interior that affects the exterior.
  • New addition, construction, and/or remodel.
  • A proposed new business or service (change of use).
  • Any change in a public right-of-way or other public spaces, including parks and sidewalks.
  • Demolition of any building or structure.
  • Exterior painting

Making changes to International District

    Current Election Procedures

    Voter Registration Form: English // Chinese(繁體中文) //  Vietnamese(Tiếng Việt)  

    Employee Verification Form: English // Chinese(繁體中文)  // Vietnamese(Tiếng Việt)  

    Design Guidelines

    New Proposed Design Review Guidelines

    The Department of Neighborhoods (DON) is proposing new design review guidelines for the International Special Review District. DON has determined that the proposed guidelines will not have a significant adverse environmental impact and has issued a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS).

    Comments regarding this DNS or potential environmental impacts may be submitted to through June 1, 2023

    A public meeting before the ISRD Board will be scheduled following the end of the public comment period on the SEPA decision (date: TBD).  An email will be sent to the ISRD mailing list and Guidelines interest list once that date has been determined.  General questions regarding the proposal may be directed to Rebecca Frestedt at (206) 684-0226,

    Current Design Review Guidelines

    1. What is the International Special Review District Board?

    The Board consists of seven members, five that are elected by the community in annual elections and two that are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by City Council. Two of the five elected Board members own property or a business in the District or who are employed in the District, two of the elected members reside in the District or have demonstrated an interest in the District, and one member is elected at large. The Board reviews applications for Certificates of Approval for any change to the use, exterior appearance of buildings or structures, streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces in the District.

    2. What Must Be Reviewed and Approved By the Board?

    The following changes require a Certificate of Approval to be issued by the Board and the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods before the City will issue any permits:

    • Any change to the outside of any building or structure
    • Installation of any new sign or changes to existing sign
    • Installation of a new awning or canopy
    • Any change to an interior that affects the exterior
    • New addition, construction and/or remodel
    • A proposed new business or service (change of use)
    • Any change in the public right-of-way or other public spaces, including parks and sidewalks
    • Demolition of any building or structure
    • Exterior painting

    3. When are the Board Meetings?

    Meetings are held on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 4:30 p.m. at the Hirabayashi Place, 442 S. Main St.; Donnie Chin Community Room. All Board meetings are open to the public.

    4. What is a Certificate of Approval?

    A Certificate of Approval is an official notice of approval issued by the International Special Review District Board. To get your project reviewed and approved, a completed Application for Certificate Approval needs to be submitted to the Landmark District Coordinator.A Certificate of Approval is not a permit. An applicant is still responsible for obtaining relevant permits after receiving approval from the Review Committee and Board. City Departments such as Seattle Transportation and Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) issue permits after an applicant has received a Certificate of Approval.

    5. What is the Approval Process?

    Step 1: Submit a completed application and the appropriate fee to the Historic Preservation Program.

    Step 2: The Board Coordinator will review the application and plans for completeness and compliance with the regulations.

    Step 3: After your application is determined to be complete, it will be placed on the agenda for the next public meeting of the Board.

    Step 4: The Board will recommend to the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods whether to approve, approve with conditions, or deny the application.

    Step 5: The Director of the Department of Neighborhoods makes the final decision whether to approve, approve with conditions or deny your application.

    Step 6: A Notice of Decision to approve, approve with conditions or deny the application for Certificate of Approval will be issued.

    Step 7: You or any interested party of record may appeal a decision to the City Hearing Examiner within 14 days of the issuance of the Notice of Decision.

    6. How Do I Schedule for Board Review?

    If you are considering starting a new business or service, changing the location of your business (within the District) or making physical changes to the outside of your property or business, please contact the International Special Review District Board Coordinator, (206) 684-0226, for assistance in reviewing your plans and in scheduling for Board consideration.


    Jenifer Chao, Interim Director
    Address: 600 4th Avenue, 4th Floor, Seattle, WA , 98104
    Mailing Address: PO Box 94649, Seattle, WA, 98124-4649
    Phone: (206) 684-0464
    Fax: (206) 233-5142

    Newsletter Updates


    Sign up for the latest updates from Neighborhoods

    Seattle Department of Neighborhoods provides resources and opportunities for community members to build strong communities and improve their quality of life.