Hot Button: The Fall of Little Saigon

By Naomi Ishisaka
Seattle Magazine, March 2009

Quang H. Nguyen’s story, in many ways, is the story of the Vietnamese American community. Uprooted by war, displaced to a new country and culture, Nguyen and his family were among the 45,000 Southeast Asians to settle in Washington state between 1975 (the fall of Saigon) and 1985. “My parents came here with nothing, just like thousands of other families,” Nguyen says. “They came here with exactly nothing. They had to learn a new language, rebuild their lives and keep the family together.” Over a 10-year period, they, along with 500,000 others nationwide, formed what historians call the second wave of Vietnamese refugee resettlement. Unlike the first wave of Vietnamese in 1975, who were primarily government officials with more resources, this much larger second wave—once dubbed “boat people”—fled Vietnam in open, overcrowded, rickety boats on high seas for weeks at a time, facing pirates, thirst and hunger.

Today, Nguyen is the executive director of the Washington Vietnamese American (WAVA) Chamber of Commerce (formerly the Vietnamese American Economic Development Association or VAEDA), and the community’s lead negotiator for the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods, a diverse group that has joined together in the fight to preserve the flavor of the local Vietnamese community in the face of big development.

The heart of Seattle’s Vietnam community, Little Saigon, lies at the intersection of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, a bustling mix of Vietnamese-owned jewelry stores, groceries and restaurants on the edge of the International District. Since the early 1980s, waves of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have centered their civic and cultural life in this scrappy corridor. From shopping and dining to connecting with friends, Little Saigon creates the cultural links that keep the community together. Yet today, many fear their ethnic hub is under threat, because of the Dearborn Project, a massive multi-use shopping mall and housing development to be located on the 10-acre South Dearborn site of Goodwill Industries, and slated to begin construction within approximately a year (assuming financing comes through).

The $300 million Dearborn Project, when introduced in 2005, resulted in immediate community outrage. The project’s scale was just the beginning. There was also a lack of connection to the surrounding community, and the developers’ initial failure to involve the community in planning. It sparked the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods, which brought together 40 groups—including the Vietnamese community—representing a wide variety of concerns, such as cultural preservation, the environment and labor issues.

Darrell Vange, development manager for Ravenhurst Development Inc.—a developer of the Dearborn Project—noted that he met more than 70 times with community groups regarding the project. “We know that in order to build a truly successful project, we need to work with the communities, such as Little Saigon, to preserve their vitality and character.”

After two years of negotiation, mediation and hard-fought compromise, the coalition and project partners Ravenhurst and TRF Pacific finally reached a deal last August. The outcome—the first community benefits agreement (CBA) in the state (there are only 13 such agreements nationwide)—mandated that in exchange for the coalition’s tacit or explicit support of the project, the developers would agree to a host of mitigations (see sidebar). The legally binding CBA is seen as a boon for community organizations that want to put more teeth into nonbinding pledges from developers to work with the community on their projects.

As lead negotiator, Nguyen spent thousands of hours advocating for the interests of the community, yet his efforts garnered criticism from all sides, including many in the Vietnamese American community itself. Several groups have broken from the coalition. At press time, they were scheduled to take their opposition to City Council hearings in January and February, hoping to block or shrink the project, which is scheduled to break ground approximately one year after City Council approval.

One such opponent is activist Bill Bradburd, a former member of the Jackson Place Community Council who believes the development will introduce too much change, too quickly. “Question is, does the city want to preserve the area as Little Saigon—does it want to preserve that character?” Bradburd asks.
The diverse groups that oppose the CBA also include some in the business community, who lambasted the idea in a 2007 Puget Sound Business Journal editorial that read, “Turning private developers into social engineers who work from activists’ checklists would be a terrible mistake.”

Hyeok Kim, the executive director of InterIm, a community development association founded by Asian American activists in the 1960s, is another CBA opponent voicing concerns. While praising the benefits to labor and economic development, Kim says it doesn’t do enough to protect the diverse mix of incomes, ethnicities and environment that make the neighborhood a destination for Asian Americans throughout the region. And it doesn’t do enough to alleviate traffic, to provide monetary support for affected businesses or to allow for sufficient open space.

“We don’t think the Chinatown-ID will stay true to itself or its traditions if it becomes just another Belltown,” says Kim, who fears the scope of the development will lead to the erosion of the small-scale, ethnic businesses.

Tam Nguyen of the neighborhood’s popular restaurant Tamarind Tree also fears the impact of the project on the community. “It is going to be really tough for our community to sustain [its culture], because small business is going to suffer [with the development]. This is a way to displace small businesses, and the culture is…going to dissolve away. To me, that is a sad thing about the Dearborn Project.”

Thao Tran of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods—who was Quang Nguyen’s predecessor at VAEDA—sees much of the criticism as unfair and believes that Nguyen turned a difficult negotiation “into a win-win for the community as best as he could.” He notes, “Even when you get a victory, the community is not always going to celebrate with you.”

What many involved in this debate may not acknowledge is another role that Quang Nguyen is playing. Even as he voices criticism of the project, for instance, Tamarind Tree owner Tam Nguyen credits Quang Nguyen’s effort to bridge the gaps between the older and younger generations of the Vietnamese American community, and between the community and the rest of the city. “Our community is merging into the mainstream,” Tam Nguyen says. “[Quang] is trying to bring us into the mainstream. Trying to be involved is hard.”

That’s also a theme sounded by Tran, who came to Seattle as a refugee in 1982 at age 6. “Eventually, you can’t just have all restaurants [in Little Saigon] providing a chair and good meal—the new thing is you’ve got to have your façade. You have to work on your presentation a little bit more…to attract the clientele who will want to spend money.”

This shift from old to new is well illustrated by the story of Tamarind Tree’s Tam Nguyen, who, in 2004, grew tired of driving to Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods for a restaurant with nice ambience. He put his family’s extensive restaurant skills to work in creating the restaurant off 12th and Jackson. With its elegant, urban aesthetic, yet affordable and traditional food, Tamarind Tree brought together the past and future of the community. “I think it’s a natural evolution of this type of business,” he says, “because the community is becoming mature now, and back then, our community was very young, so we had very simple expectations. Now our community is well educated, and you have different expectations—the business owners are realizing that.” In a further sign of this shift, he’s opening another restaurant—called Long, Vietnamese for “dragon”—at Second and Stewart in the heart of downtown. “Our food is our culture,” he says. “A culture that is not being shared is a bad culture.”

Quang Nguyen is confident that despite the divisions sowed by the Dearborn Project, the community will persevere. “No matter what happens, I think that individuals in the Vietnamese American community—because we’re survivors, we’ve gone through some pretty tough trials and experience—will land on their feet somehow,” he says. “The key is to provide [business owners] with the tools and the resources in order to change and adapt to the changing environment. We need them to see that if you can survive on a boat for weeks at a time with little or no food or water, [if] you can survive in a refugee camp for over a year, you can do just about anything.”

Mitigating Impact
In creating the state’s first community benefits agreement, the Dearborn Project developers agreed to a number of mitigations, including:
-Construction of 200 units of affordable housing
-$200,000 for traffic mitigation in the Little Saigon and Jackson Place neighborhoods
-Payment of prevailing wages for workers on the project
-An agreement by the developers’ drugstore and grocery tenants not to block union organizing
-Rent subsidies for nonprofits in the development and a tenant improvement allowance
-$200,000 for the design of a Vietnamese community center
-$600,000 over 12 years to support the Little Saigon business district

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