Examiner Staff
The “subject” line of the Aug. 1 e-mail read, “SAVE LITTLE SAIGON Project Update: They are finally listening to the Vietnamese community!”

The “they” in the Vietnamese American Economic Development Association (VAEDA) announcement are the City of Seattle and Dearborn Street Developers. The developers intend to build a 620,000 square-foot, five-story mixed-use complex at the present site of Seattle Goodwill on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South Dearborn Street.

This “Dearborn Street” project would include a new 120,000 square-foot facility for Seattle Goodwill, big-box retailers such as Target or Fred Meyer, Lowe’s, Best Buy, a grocery store such as QFC, about 40 other smaller shops, a pet supply store, fitness center and 400-500 residential units above the shopping village.

VAEDA, representing the business interests of the Little Saigon Vietnamese American business community clustered around its hub at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, claims that it has collected 1,000 signatures on a petition that does not support the Dearborn Street project.

Reasons for not supporting the project, the petition states, are that it will “negatively impact the small businesses in Little Saigon,” the developer has not adequately addressed “potential adverse impacts to the surrounding neighborhood,” and that there will be a “detrimental increase in traffic to the neighborhood.”

Due to the 1,000 signatures collected so far – the “midway mark to our goal to collect 2,000 signatures” – VAEDA states in its announcement that it has served notice to “what is now billed as a $400 million project.”

“The City of Seattle has, for the rest of the year, opted to take more time to review the developer’s re-zone request (required to initiate construction) due to issues raised by the community!”

The VAEDA announcement went on to say: “A month ago the developers were not interested in what the Vietnamese community had to say … but thanks to your support, they are now asking to sit with the VAEDA team to hear the demands of the Vietnamese community. VAEDA is currently developing a proposal that we feel will maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts this project will have on the Little Saigon community. If they do not meet this proposal, we will continue to send them our NEXT 1,000 signatures showing how even more members and supporters of the Vietnamese community continue to oppose this project.”

Jesse Robbins, one of five current or former college students, along with three Little Saigon business owners, has been collecting signatures for the petition during the past two months. He is not of Vietnamese descent, however he grew up in South Seattle with Vietnamese friends, learned the Vietnamese language at the University of Washington and has been to Vietnam.

Robbins, 24, has lifelong friends whose families operate Little Saigon small businesses.

“They took me in, even though I wasn’t Vietnamese,” he says. “This is my way of giving back to them.”

He says the strategy for the eight signature-gatherers is to discuss upcoming community events and “how we can have a presence.” They have canvassed at events like the recent Vietnamese American festival “Tet in Seattle,” the Seattle Chinatown-International District Summer Festival, and in front of Vietnamese American churches and stores.

The group’s priority for signatures is the Vietnamese American business owners “since they will be the most impacted,” Robbins says. Then the Vietnamese American community at-large and supporters of the community are sought out. He says he has to explain what the petition is about “to everybody,” which shows how uninformed the Vietnamese American community is “about this issue.”

However, he is “very optimistic” that another 1,000 signatures can be collected, and “another 2,000 if we wanted to.”

The petitions have been submitted to the City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

Darrell Vange of Dearborn Street Developers says the Dearborn Street project is still a $300 million project as originally planned. He also says his application for a “contract rezone” to build residential units on property currently zoned for commercial use only is proceeding according to schedule. The application by Dearborn Street Developers for the rezone, Master Use Permit and vacation of South Lane Street near the present Goodwill site will be considered for approval by the Department of Planning and Development and the Seattle City Council by the end of this year.

He still is anticipating that initial phases of the project will be completed by 2010.
Vange also says that he has had a proposal to VAEDA “on the table” since early May and is still awaiting a response.

“We are interested in understanding the concerns and desires of the Little Saigon community,” he says, hoping that the “petition becomes part of the past record.” He recounts how he has, since late 2004, “identified community groups and leaders and identified who we should be talking to.” Vange says he has been working with VAEDA since early 2005. He understands how a response reflecting the desires of a community takes time, and how there is “not one uniform view in the community.”

Vange says he is “hopeful” that an agreement with the Little Saigon community will be reached soon. He has listened to comments that the Dearborn Street project as planned is “inward facing” (VAEDA members say it looks like a “fortress”) and has altered the complex to “strengthen retail presence and pedestrian activity along the perimeter.” That includes having three to four shops on South Weller Street instead of loading docks, and for the lobby for the residential units to face Weller instead of Lane Street.

Those plans, he says, will have a “positive effect of connecting the community together,” plus raising the land that the project will be on by 20 feet will “connect to Little Saigon.”

“If anyone had Little Saigon as a neighbor, you would want to support it as much as you can,” Vange says, adding that he would “love to have Vietnamese businesses” operate among the multiethnic shops within the Dearborn Street project, which he has proposed. An Environmental Impact Statement has already been completed in “draft form” which will address concerns about traffic, he says.

VAEDA board members say they have responded to Dearborn Street Developers – with the petition. The developers have not shown VAEDA “anything to say we support the project,” they add.

However, they say, as Vange says he understands, that VAEDA has to develop a consensus of what the Vietnamese American community wants, and what they propose to the developers has to reflect that – and that process has taken time.

There has been a renewed effort on the part of both parties to address issues, VAEDA board members say..

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