A visitor crossing 12th Avenue at Jackson Street can be forgiven for dismissing the crossroads as 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.”