Despite the city’s predictions that light rail would benefit the local economy, Asian-owned businesses have keenly felt the unexpected negative consequences of light rail. Especially for the Vietnamese community, business owners have had to endure a slew of difficulties, resulting in a decline of business by thirty percent in some areas.
The city approved construction of the light rail in November of 1996. Over the years, the construction and maintenance of the light rail has provoked much controversy, with residents voting for increased sales taxes and vehicle taxes to pay for a $3.9 billion project. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Sound Transit experienced its share of financial and political obstacles. One consequence of these difficulties was an increased cost for the line to operate, which consequently raised prices for the passengers.
For many of the Vietnamese businesses on MLK Jr. Way, the difficulties started as soon as construction of the light rail began. The construction activity completely obstructed customers from entering King Plaza, which is situated in the very heart of the Vietnamese community.
Dr. Thu Nguyen, of Vina Dental, says, “They blocked the street, cutting off MLK Way. This shut the businesses down. The businesses were not slipping but dying. They killed our businesses during a five year period.”
The effects of the construction are felt even to this day. As a result of the construction, Vina Dental, as well as many other businesses in the area, lost long-term customers who began patronizing businesses outside of the area.
“The customers had no way of entering the plaza. It’s better now in that business is not dying, but it’s still not good, because we lost so much business over the past five years,” says Dr. Nguyen.
Now that the light rail is operating, other difficulties have frustrated both business owners and customers. Parking has become a major issue at King Plaza. Bang Nguyen, manager of Win Realties, says that “Light rail has forced [light rail passenger’s] cars to park on our business [lots],” said Nguyen. “Limited parking and zone parking has caused the landlord to enforce a limited-hour parking, even on their own tenants. As a result, there has been displacement of businesses and available parking.”
Regarding the city’s promise of new business as a result of light rail, Dr. Nguyen remains skeptical. “I’ve seen no new business because of light rail. Maybe one or two of my old customers take light rail, as a novelty. Only a couple customers arrive per month by it.”
Perhaps the most detrimental effect of light rail has been the displacement of businesses out of the usual immigrant enclaves. Nguyen says that in the last several years there has been a forced migration south to Renton and Kent.
“This migration includes not only residencies but also businesses,” says Nguyen. “Renton East Valley has an infill in Southeast Asian stores. The community has experienced a decline in growth by thirty to fifty percent.”
On the surface, Nguyen notes, the impact of light rail on local Vietnamese businesses seems minimal. This is because owners are selling their businesses and the new owners are keeping the same business name.
“You don’t notice it but there have been deals made and internally these businesses are being sold over and over again during the construction of light rail and even now,” said Nguyen. “Those are the same businesses but actually the original owners have left.”
The construction of light rail is part of an overall project to promote “forced gentrification,” as Nguyen puts it. He says, “We were arguing against the construction of the shopping mall on Dearborn St. by Little Saigon. This process hinders the natural growth of the neighborhood.” The city’s light rail project is but one example of the ways in which city undertakings can negatively impact the local community.
Sadly, for many business owners in King Plaza (as well as the surrounding area), light rail has proven to be more of a nuisance than a boon. What can be learned from this lesson? Perhaps it would be prudent for the city to thoroughly research the effects of such a far-reaching project. Local leaders could also raise awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of proposed city undertakings. Perhaps the most important lesson is for local business owners to express their thoughts by voting or talking to politicians and community leaders. As a result of empowerment through activism, we can learn to impact not just the community economy, but also its overall well-being.