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Heart of Little Saigon prepares for a makeover

A mural on the northwest corner of 12th and Jackson Credit: Canopic

A visitor crossing 12th Avenue at Jackson Street can be forgiven for dismissing the crossroads as an eyesore, an urban jumble of strip-mall architecture, dilapidated infrastructure, vacant spaces scarred by graffiti, vast parking lots, bad lighting and trash. But a closer look reveals the intersection for what it really is: the bustling cultural, social and economic heart of Little Saigon, Seattle’s vibrant Vietnamese community.

That community is bracing for a major makeover.

Like most Seattle neighborhoods these days, the cranes are coming. In fact, given Little Saigon’s proximity to downtown, cherry tree-lined streets, new bike lanes, a soon-to-be-running streetcar line, recent height up-zoning and dramatic views of the Puget Sound, the seeds of change have been germinating for some time now.

In Seattle, where “transit-oriented development” is the new catchphrase, a car-centric neighborhood of mini-malls is unlikely to attract the zeal of historic preservationists in the same way as Pioneer Square or Chinatown. That’s why a new, people-centered movement is fighting to preserve the vitality and identity of Little Saigon before it is too late.

The Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) and Friends of Little Saigon are partnering with the City of Seattle to develop the Little Saigon Business District Plan. Through an extensive outreach process to local business owners and residents, the groups are trying to fashion a development vision that’s based on the concerns and needs of the local community.

Spencer Williams, an urban designer and planner at Futurewise who is helping develop the business plan, believes a community-driven vision is critical for equitable growth. “There is this idea that you can make a place better without improving the lives of the people that live there, either by displacing them or by giving them investments that they don’t need or value,” he says. “That’s why community engagement, having a vision and acting on it is really important.”

IDEA Space, SCIDpda’s design and resource center, organizes place-making workshops to involve the community in the neighborhood’s development. But outreach isn’t so easy in Little Saigon.

First of all, the community remains wary of government — a legacy of mistrust from the Vietnam War era. The neighborhood also suffers from “a lack of community engagement … participation … [and] organizational capacity,” says Quynh Pham, the Community Economic Development Coordinator at SCIDpda. “Organizing outreach in a business community, specifically mom and pop businesses … is extremely challenging.” Small business owners are often too busy working to attend meetings.

So, how might 12th and Jackson look two decades from now if the city and developers actually followed a community vision? Last summer, SCIDpda worked with students from the University of Washington’s Department of Landscape Architecture to tackle that very question.

The resulting report calls for transit-oriented development that moves Little Saigon away from the current, car-dominated neighborhood to one that is pedestrian-oriented. The intersection’s low-rise buildings would give way to multi-story, mixed-use developments that increase residential and commercial density. Businesses would occupy the lower levels with residential apartments on the upper floors.

UW students were mindful of maintaining a strong sense of place. Williams hopes that any design vision for the community will enhance the diversity that exists there today. “Part of that experience of place is who is there?” he says. “What does it smell like? What does it look like? Do you hear languages that are different than yours? That is a daily experience in Little Saigon.”

The intersection of 12th and Jackson today. Credit: Caroline Eckel
UW student rendering of future development at 12th and Jackson. Where are the Vietnamese? Credit: UW Department of Landscape Architecture

To foster that sense of place, the plan envisions a streetscape that captures and celebrates the neighborhood’s Vietnamese identity with cultural icons incorporated into signage, distinctive crosswalks and an Asian Landmark Center anchoring the southwest corner of the intersection. Inviting public spaces would dot the neighborhood, from a central plaza and market to sidewalks lined with trees and benches. Parking lots would be converted into areas for café seating.

Credit: SCIDpda
Credit: SCIDpda
Credit: SCIDpda

It all sounds great. But would the current Vietnamese business owners still be able to afford to operate in this future version of Little Saigon? The average per capita income in the neighborhood is little more than $13,000 a year. It’s almost certain that robust municipal interventions, such as a policy promoting affordable and diverse commercial spaces through public subsidies, would be required to ensure that the market alone doesn’t dictate who can afford to live and work there.

SCIDpda aspires to create a “vibrant community with more housing, businesses, cultural and community spaces.” Yet Quynh Pham is aware that unless “developments are mindful of the existing community and culture,” there will be “a high risk of displacement.” In other words, there’s a chance that sprucing up the neighborhood, even if it’s done in a culturally-tasteful manner, will drive current residents and businesses out. Transit-oriented development and light-rail has already displaced African-American communities in the Rainier Valley.

Without the historic protections enjoyed by other parts of the Chinatown-International District, the future of Little Saigon may well rest with the ability of the local community to organize and create a powerful vision for its future.

The visioning process for Little Saigon is just beginning. The City of Seattle and the neighborhood groups are still in the outreach phase. SCIDpda, Friends of Little Saigon and other activists hope their community-based strategies will be brought to life with funding from the City of Seattle’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which is addressing the citywide problem of how to ensure equity in growth.

Despite the perils, Spencer Williams is optimistic about the future of Little Saigon. “When you increase access to services, there is a danger of increasing the risk of displacement because you are increasing demand,” he says. “But you can stabilize that risk by using strategies that promote affordability.” The trick is striking the right balance between attracting newcomers and preserving the community and culture that exists there now.

As a visitor told Williams during an outreach survey, their work will have been a success “if in 20 years from now I can still buy a cheap Vietnamese sandwich at 12th and Jackson.”

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