Standing on the corner of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, Tam Nguyen can picture the changes that he fears may be coming to Seattle’s Little Saigon, whether the City Council approves a proposed upzone of the neighborhood or not.
Nguyen sees shiny high-rise buildings, chain restaurants and cookie-cutter cafes — a neighborhood missing the Vietnamese-American businesses and people that have made it unique, and he wants to know if the council sees the same thing.
“They’re sitting up there passing all these policies above our head,” he said. “If the city doesn’t get more involved, our community will be gone for sure.”
Northwest of the intersection — where utilitarian, low-slung buildings house Nguyen’s popular Tamarind Tree restaurant— an eight-story complex with 200-plus apartments, hotel rooms, child-care center and theater is planned.
Taller buildings coming: Seattle council approves upzone in downtown, SLU
To the southwest, a poultry warehouse may be bulldozed and replaced with more than 300 apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space.
Down South Jackson in each direction, developers are bidding on properties and preparing to break ground.
And just up the hill, Paul Allen’s Vulcan is transforming the Yesler Terrace public-housing complex into a mixed-income community.
“The developers are coming in and whatever they want to do with Little Saigon, they’re going to do it,” said Nguyen. “They’re buying the land. They’re making plans.”
Though such projects are allowed under existing zoning, Mayor Ed Murray’s upzone would permit even taller buildings in most of the Chinatown International District, including Little Saigon, and would trigger a new program requiring developers to help create affordable housing.
Nguyen isn’t set against the upzone. He says more affordable housing would be welcome. Indeed, some neighborhood advocates are asking the council to boost the requirements, which the city says would generate about 150 income- and rent-restricted units over 10 years.
The proposal’s relatively modest changes in zoning, which would allow buildings one to three stories higher, aren’t expected to directly displace many residents. There are only four housing units in existing Chinatown ID structures on parcels identified by the city as redevelopable.
But Nguyen is anxious about Little Saigon’s small businesses — pho restaurants, hair salons, grocery stores.
As council members weigh the upzone, he says, they shouldsimultaneously take other actions to protect the neighborhood’s character.
“This is an opportunity for them, when they do the upzone, to look at the community,” Nguyen said. “We want to preserve our identity. We need to have that discussion.”
One of many proposals
The Chinatown ID is one of more than two dozen areas across the city that the mayor wants to upzone this year and next. Already, the council has approved changes in the University District, downtown and South Lake Union.
The upzones are activating Murray’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) program, wherein developers include low-income units in their buildings or pay fees.
The program is supposed to produce 6,000 affordable units over 10 years, mostly for renter households with no more than 60 percent of the regions’s median income.
For instance, a family of three making $49,000 per year would qualify and would pay about $1,200 per month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
The requirements for developers are different in different areas. In the University District, massively upzoned on some blocks, developers will need to devote up to 10 percent of their buildings (or make an equivalent payment) to affordable housing.
In downtown and South Lake Union, the requirements will range up to 5 percent. And under the proposal for the Chinatown ID, the ceiling would be 7 percent.
Some Seattleites, including members of a group calling themselves the CID Coalition, say the city needs to demand much more in order to offset rising rents.
During a comment period on April 18, one called the requirements for downtown “shameful” and another said the number for the Chinatown ID should be 25 percent.
“We’re watching our elders being displaced,” Sue Kay said, mentioning that the group opposes a 14-story hotel planned for Eighth Avenue South and South Lane Street.
Doris Koo, executive director of Yesler Community Collaborative, agrees that the proposed upzone wouldn’t generate enough affordable units to halt gentrification.
But Koo says 7 percent is actually a victory for advocates — under an earlier version of Murray’s proposal, the requirements were even lower.
She says 25 percent is an unrealistic goal. Under MHA, the city is trying to balance what developers are giving with what they’re getting.
Because the Chinatown ID was upzoned as recently as 2011, the proposed changes aren’t as drastic as in the University District, Koo says. The council should act now, before the development boom is over, she says.
“There will be no additional affordable housing if we don’t enact the proposed MHA legislation soon,” she told the council’s land-use committee this month.
The committee plans to discuss the upzone next on Tuesday, May 2, hold a public hearing on June 1 and vote later in June.
Little Saigon worries
Like Nguyen, Koo is particularly worried about Little Saigon, located east of Interstate 5 and the rest of the Chinatown ID.
The historic heart of Chinatown, situated west of Interstate 5 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would be excluded from the mayor’s upzone.
But buildings would be allowed to climb up to three stories higher on some blocks in Little Saigon, where a city study last year identified nearly every parcel as redevelopable.
Though public-safety problems and municipal neglect may have held the neighborhood back in past years, Little Saigon and the rest of the Chinatown ID sit near downtown with easy access to I-5, commuter trains, light-rail and a streetcar line.
Those are ingredients for smart and explosive urban growth, and some business owners are excited about development bringing better spaces and new customers.
The Asian Plaza property where Tamarind Tree is located will be developed by the Chinn family, which has longtime ties to the Chinatown ID and which plans to have the existing anchor tenant, Viet Wah Supermarket, anchor the new complex, as well.
“The Chinatown International District is still a culturally rich neighborhood, but over the years it has lagged behind … in terms of family income level and employment,” the project’s website says, casting the coming changes as progress.
“As the next generation moves up the economic ladder by becoming doctors, lawyers, and accountants, they are less inclined to live and work in (the) district. What will help is commercial development that modernizes the area and provides employment, income, and vitality that the next generation wants, and yet reflects and honors the cultural identity of each immigrant group.”
Nguyen says Little Saigon’s character won’t survive, however, if the new retail spaces are too large and costly. Many small-business owners in the neighborhood, including Nguyen, already are on tenuous, month-to-month leases, he says.
The council should complement the upzone with other strategies, such as those in a citywide small-business plan that Murray released in September, Koo says.
The city could restrict the size of new stores or create affordable spaces in existing brick buildings by helping owners make earthquake-preparedness repairs, she says.
Most specifically, Nguyen says the city should soften the upzone by helping members of Seattle’s Southeast Asian community buy into the neighborhood’s future.
For years, the Friends of Little Saigon group has been pushing the idea of a project with a Vietnamese-American cultural center, affordable housing, celebration space and a night market.
The group has been working with nonprofits to secure land but has been outbid several times by deep-pocketed developers, Nguyen says.
Though Murray has allocated money to make part of King Street Station in the Chinatown ID an “affordable food and retail” hub that could host immigrant entrepreneurs, assistance for the Little Saigon project has been lacking, Nguyen says.
“The tension in our community is so high, we feel like we’re in the lion’s dungeon being eaten up,” he said.
The view from the corner of 12th and Jackson includes street signs in English and Vietnamese. Nguyen says the signs above the neighborhood’s shops matter more.
“My nightmare is that 10 years from now, none of the businesses will be Vietnamese,” he said. “People come back and say, ‘There’s a Subway here now, a McDonald’s. Where’s the noodle shop where we used to eat?’ ”