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January 11, 2007

Steven Arai remembered as a ‘gracious, respectful warrior'

Journal Staff Reporter

Steven Arai, an architect and urban planner who was active in the Seattle Japanese American community, died Dec. 27 at the age of 60 after a prolonged illness.

Arai spent 30 years with Arai Jackson Ellison Murakami Architect + Planners, a firm known for its public projects.

Arai helped his firm build a reputation for civic projects such as Kirkland City Hall, Seattle's Southwest Police Precinct Station, University of Washington Johnson Hall renovation and the Lacey Capitol campus master plan.

He was an advocate for historic preservation and was skilled at guiding the public involvement process, according to colleagues.

“Steve was so smooth in our public meetings that you didn't even know he was smooth — you just noticed that people fell in love with him,” said Teresa Rodriguez, who worked with him on the Southwest Precinct Station. “He was a mentor to me in the realm of public involvement.”

Arai grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington in 1969. His uncle, Kichio Allen Arai, was the first Asian American architect in Seattle to design buildings under his own name. He designed Seattle's Nichiren Buddhist Church.

Steven Arai's first job as an architect was with Mel Streeter's firm Streeter & Associates. He joined Cliff Jackson and his cousin Jerry Arai in 1976, and became a partner the next year.

As a minority-owned firm, Arai Jackson Architects & Planners hired a diverse staff that reflected the local population. Rich Murakami, who joined the firm 21 years ago and is now a partner, said Steven Arai was his mentor.

“He was an eternal optimist and was very supportive in the development of my career,” said Murakami. “His sense of optimism is what I carry with me.”

Arai served on the American Institute of Architects Seattle Diversity Roundtable since 1994 and was AIA Seattle president in 2001 and 2002. He was also a council member of the Historic Seattle Preservation & Development Authority and board member of Historic Seattle Preservation Foundation.

Brenda Levin, a principal with Brenda Levin & Associates Architects of Los Angeles, said Arai's advice was helpful as she designed the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. Arai was on the project's building committee, as part of his role as a board member for the Japanese American National Museum.

“He understood the power of being reverential to a historic building, but also how new construction could change the use of the building,” she said. Arai helped her to improve her design without imposing his ego or preferences. “He was a force of intelligence, strength and commitment.”

Murakami, who worked on Kirkland City Hall, said Arai enjoyed the collaborative nature of the design process. “He was just a very collaborative person,” Murakami said. “The process he brought to this office was one of open communication and the workshops we did with clients.”

“He also encouraged people to become involved in the community,” he added.

Jim Suehiro of NBBJ, a fellow Japanese American architect and member of the Diversity Roundtable, said Arai “quietly earned the respect of those in our community.”

“What I greatly appreciated in Steve was that he was a most gracious and respectful warrior as he worked through complex issues that affected people,” Suehiro said.

“I was always amazed at how he could temper a hostile crowd,” said Bruce Ellison, a partner at Arai's firm. “He loved the urban environment, the Pacific Northwest, his heritage and historical architecture. He believed in and worked tirelessly in the public realm.”

The firm will keep the Arai name for now, according to spokesperson Eli Jaeger.

Arai is survived by a wife, sister and six children. A public open house is being planned, but the date and location have not been determined. For information, go to http://www.araijackson.com.

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