Photo caption: Conceptual illustration of indoor night market. Usage of this image is not authorized without consent from Emerald Night Market.
When Little Saigon first sprouted in the late 1970s from an area that was mostly vacant buildings, it became a necessity and comfort area for new Vietnamese refugees in the Puget Sound area, providing Southeast Asian products and groceries. The neighborhood expanded in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and to this day, has remained a vibrant and bustling business district.
Being just east of Chinatown-International District (CID) and close to downtown Seattle, Little Saigon has been an attractive neighborhood for developers and property owners, which is a “double edge sword,” says Quang Nguyen, the senior economic development specialist for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda).
Although development opportunities would create more economic activity, more building and a more vibrant, scenic neighborhood, it would come with higher property values, pushing rent higher for the tenants of restaurants, hair salons and other small neighborhood businesses.
“There is an imminent threat of displacement of those small businesses,” says Nguyen. “Those businesses are the bedrock of our community. If you go to Chinatown, Little Saigon or Japantown, it’s made up of small businesses, and people come because they want to have authentic food and an authentic cultural experience.”
When a restaurant owner in Little Saigon came up with the idea several years ago to create an indoor night market for a Southeast Asian food and retail experience, there was trouble finding property for it in the neighborhood that seemed to be the most natural for it: Little Saigon.
Last March, Friends of Little Saigon, a nonprofit group of advocates, held a community gathering to discuss how to improve the social, cultural and economic fabric of the neighborhood. They found that the top priority of Vietnamese Americans in the community was to have a cultural or community center.
“They felt like the Vietnamese community doesn’t have a real home,” said Quang Nguyen. “There’s a neighborhood where a lot of people come shop but there’s nothing that creates a sense of space where people feel like they’re in Little Saigon.”
Integrating the idea of a cultural retail and commercial night market, a Vietnamese community center and affordable commercial space, the Little Saigon Landmark Project was created to support small businesses and create a thriving neighborhood.
After realizing what the community needed, Friends of Little Saigon started an advocacy campaign for the neighborhood and presented Seattle City Council members with their concerns.
“We told them we knew that growth and density is something that’s going to occur in this neighborhood,” said Nguyen, “but we want to set the tone for the growth and change so that it benefits the community instead of it being the displacement factor for the community.”
Friends of Little Saigon plans to integrate more than 75 affordable housing units into the Little Saigon Landmark Project, including two-and-three-bedroom apartments for families.
In the fall of 2012, City Council unanimously approved the proposal for the Little Saigon Landmark Project and asked city agencies for support to fund a feasibility study that assesses different components, projections, expenses and revenue the Landmark Project would have over the course of the next few years. The project received $40,000 from the city and $100,000 from the Seattle Housing Authority, which was from a grant they won from JP Morgan Chase Foundation this past fall.
“This is a complex project in one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the city,” said Brian Surrat, business development director at Seattle’s Office of Economic Development during a City Council meeting on March 13th. “There’s a lot of pressure in this community and changes are afoot. All these changes also could mean new opportunities.”
Nestled between South Main Street and South Weller Street, and stretching from Rainier Avenue to Interstate 5, the Little Saigon neighborhood has been surrounded by major changes.
While the First Hill Streetcar construction continues and the South downtown area and Seattle Housing Authority’s 30-acre Yesler Terrace property get massively rezoned, businesses in Little Saigon have been struggling to continue the commerce throughout the chaos.
The Yesler Terrace rezoning proposal would increase residential density from 561 to 5,000 units, add one million square feet of office space, 180,000 square feet of retail space and allow up to 13 buildings to go as high as 300 feet. Meanwhile, the First Hill Streetcar is being constructed through the CID, First Hill and Capitol Hill.
Michael Dang, whose family has owned Charlie Dang Income Tax in Little Saigon since 1987, has noticed the effects of these projects.
“It’s been horrible,” Dang says. “There have been a few weekends where people can’t even get onto our street. It’s scary to imagine that it’s going to take at least another year to complete [the neighborhood contstruction].”
Doing bookkeeping for many businesses in Little Saigon, Dang has also noticed the rise in renting out property in the past couple of years. With more than 100 small businesses in Little Saigon, most are owned by Vietnamese renting out property.
“I can’t think of any businesses that own their own space in Little Saigon. Renting is expensive enough,” said Dang. “You see a lot of businesses starting just to close up and move somewhere outside of the city since it’s cheaper.”
Business owners in the Little Saigon neighborhood pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 for rent annually.
The difficulties of starting a business in the area could be mitigated with the proposed commercial and retail center or night market, according to Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of SCIDpda.
“[The night market’s] a good business incubator-type idea. It costs a lot for businesses to start.,” Chin told Seattle City Council members at a March meeting. “This way, it could be an entry way for people to figure out whether they’re good at what they’re doing and whether they want to make an investment to further it.”
Tamarind Tree owner Tam Nguyen came up with the idea of the Emerald Market, a night market to feature a Southeast Asian-style market with food vendors and booths, as well as a banquet restaurant, bar and lounge and Asian bakery. After having trouble finding space in Little Saigon, Tam connected with Friends of Little Saigon to look at strategies, feasibility studies and possible sites in the neighborhood to house the market.
The Emerald Market is expected to be 40,000 to 50,00 square feet.
The Landmark Project’s next biggest component is the Vietnamese Cultural Center, which is planned to be approximately 10,000 to 15,000 square feet. The space will include a large performance hall, exhibition space, classrooms and offices for nonprofit organizations. Being the top priority from members in the Vietnamese community, the center will be a social hub in Little Saigon.
“It could really be a landmark if we do this right,” said Surratt.