Little Saigon, a vibrant and robust community, has been a taste of home to Vietnamese refugees for more than 30 years. As a result of many City of Seattle projects such as the Yesler Terrace rezoning and First Hill Streetcar construction, neighborhood businesses are struggling and potentially facing the threat of displacement.
“Like an earthquake, business owners are not prepared for what appears to be happening in the area,” said Theresa Reyna, whose family established Kim Ngoc Jewelry 30 years ago in the neighborhood. “Things are going to change, and this will affect the business owner majorly, but they don’t realize this and are not prepared.”
The Yesler Terrace rezoning is expected to attract area developers and increase rent rates, leaving current businesses in a vulnerable position. It will increase residential density from 561 to 5,000 units, add office and retail space and allow up to 300 feet-high-rise towers totaling 13. In the long term, this could mean larger corporate companies buying and “changing the face of Little Saigon” said Reyna.
The neighborhood has been a bustling mix of businesses and epicenter for community gatherings, but proposals from realtors, the city and developers in the past decade have many in Little Saigon feeling threatened by the prospect of displacement.
“A small business will need to keep up with those changes and will have to increase profit margins so they can afford to stay in the neighborhood,” said Quang Nguyen, senior economic development specialist for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).
Yen Lam, owner of Lam’s Seafood Market, which has been in the area for 22 years, said that limited parking as a result of the First Hill Streetcar construction, is damaging the community. Because Asian businesses and restaurants that were once exclusive to the ID, have sprouted up throughout the greater Seattle area, it is easy for customers to spend their money at other locations where parking might be easier to find. Because of limited parking and traffic issues, regular customers avoid the area on weekends, said Reyna. This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the elimination of the King County Metro Free Ride Zone in Downtown Seattle and extended Streetcar construction, making business very difficult in the ID, with a neighborhood survey reporting a 20 to 30 percent average drop in business sales last year.
“It is really important these businesses in the International District really need to be proactive, rather than reactive,” said Lam, citing other business communities such as Capitol Hill and Ballard. “A lot of business owners are too busy or don’t make time to see what’s going on. If you’re not vocal about it then you’re not getting resources from the city.”
The fear of becoming a community “ghost town” with a depleted Asian cultural identity like many Chinatowns throughout the country, is what inspires Friends of Little Saigon (FLS) board members like Reyna and Lam to encourage Little Saigon business owners to evolve their business practices. They are also working on a campaign called the Little Saigon Landmark Project, which aims to preserve Little Saigon as a cultural, economic and social hub. Currently in the feasibility study stage, FLS plans to establish a cultural center and night market to serve as a community anchor.
“In our community, there isn’t one physical building or structure that unified our culture in Washington,” said Reyna, mentioning that the Vietnamese community is dispersed throughout Washington state and needs a hub.
The collaborative and complex project is led by the city, SCIDpda, FOLS and others. They hope that a night market will create a friendly and safe environment at night. The purpose of the cultural center will be to host cultural events, celebrations and programming. They also plan to support small businesses through center programs.
“We want to represent the people in this area. If they have a concern or something that needs to be heard, they can come to us,” said Reyna.
Lam said outreach between the businesses and the city needs to be established on both ends. She mentioned the uproar of business owner complaints when Streetcar construction closed off parts of Little Saigon during Lunar New Year earlier this year, hampering potential celebrators and customers from attending neighborhood festivities. While FLS has been an active group for three years, they only recently became an official nonprofit organization. They are now working on spreading the word in the community and reaching out to businesses. According to Reyna, the First Hill Streetcar is expected to drive business sales up in the long run, as people from outside the CID will have easier access to the neighborhood. Nguyen called on business owners to act “entrepreneurially” in light of the changes. He said it is time for shop owners to begin marketing their neighborhood.
“We need to look at opportunities to take the neighborhood to the next level,” said Nguyen.
He suggested things such as bringing complementary businesses to support current ones and increasing the number of young professionals who have creative or tech backgrounds in the CID. He also called on business owners to help with sanitation projects to improve the look and feel of Little Saigon to become more welcoming to visitors. He also brought up the need to work with the police department in combating crime and identifying safety issues.
Overall, said, Nguyen: “We want to preserve the neighborhood in terms of its cultural flavor but also make it accessible to everyone.”