Hot Button: The Fall of Little Saigon

Big development is coming to Little Saigon. Will the community survive intact?

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Quang H. Nguyen’s story, in many ways, is the story of the Vietnamese American community. Uprooted by war, displaced to a new country and culture, Nguyen and his family were among the 45,000 Southeast Asians to settle in Washington state between 1975 (the fall of Saigon) and 1985. “My parents came here with nothing, just like thousands of other families,” Nguyen says. “They came here with exactly nothing. They had to learn a new language, rebuild their lives and keep the family together.” Over a 10-year period, they, along with 500,000 others nationwide, formed what historians call the second wave of Vietnamese refugee resettlement. Unlike the first wave of Vietnamese in 1975, who were primarily government officials with more resources, this much larger second wave—once dubbed “boat people”—fled Vietnam in open, overcrowded, rickety boats on high seas for weeks at a time, facing pirates, thirst and hunger. ¶ Today, Nguyen is the executive director of the Washington Vietnamese American (WAVA) Chamber of Commerce (formerly the Vietnamese American Economic Development Association or VAEDA), and the community’s lead negotiator for the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods, a diverse group that has joined together in the fight to preserve the flavor of the local Vietnamese community in the face of big development. ¶ The heart of Seattle’s Vietnam community, Little Saigon, lies at the intersection of 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, a bustling mix of Vietnamese-owned jewelry stores, groceries and restaurants on the edge of the International District. Since the early 1980s, waves of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have centered their civic and cultural life in this scrappy corridor. From shopping and dining to connecting with friends, Little Saigon creates the cultural links that keep the community together. Yet today, many fear their ethnic hub is under threat, because of the Dearborn Project, a massive multi-use shopping mall and housing development to be located on the 10-acre South Dearborn site of Goodwill Industries, and slated to begin construction within approximately a year (assuming financing comes through).

The $300 million Dearborn Project, when introduced in 2005, resulted in immediate community outrage. The project’s scale was just the beginning. There was also a lack of connection to the surrounding community, and the developers’ initial failure to involve the community in planning. It sparked the Dearborn Street Coalition for Livable Neighborhoods, which brought together 40 groups—including the Vietnamese community—representing a wide variety of concerns, such as cultural preservation, the environment and labor issues.

Darrell Vange, development manager for Ravenhurst Development Inc.—a developer of the Dearborn Project—noted that he met more than 70 times with community groups regarding the project. “We know that in order to build a truly successful project, we need to work with the communities, such as Little Saigon, to preserve their vitality and character.”

After two years of negotiation, mediation and hard-fought compromise, the coalition and project partners Ravenhurst and TRF Pacific finally reached a deal last August. The outcome—the first community benefits agreement (CBA) in the state (there are only 13 such agreements nationwide)—mandated that in exchange for the coalition’s tacit or explicit support of the project, the developers would agree to a host of mitigations (see sidebar). The legally binding CBA is seen as a boon for community organizations that want to put more teeth into nonbinding pledges from developers to work with the community on their projects.

As lead negotiator, Nguyen spent thousands of hours advocating for the interests of the community, yet his effor

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