Capitol Hill isn't the only Seattle neighborhood where developers are displacing beloved and iconic small businesses.
"We don't know what our future is going to be," said Tam Nguyen, co-owner of Tamarind Tree, a Vietnamese restaurant in Little Saigon on the edge of Chinatown-International District.
Nguyen and his three siblings immigrated to Washington from Vietnam in 1980. To stay connected to their culture, they opened Tamarind Tree in the heart of Little Saigon in 2004. The restaurant, which the Nguyen siblings founded in honor of their parents' restaurant back home, focuses on traditional preparations of classic Vietnamese dishes.
Today, Tamarind Tree, which sits in Asian Plaza on 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, is consistently busy for lunch and dinner. Waiters zip between tables to deliver pots of tea, fresh spring rolls, and steaming bowls of beef pho. The restaurant's sleek decor and charming patio stand out in a strip mall that's showing its age.
Nguyen is unsure about the future because Asian Plaza is slated for redevelopment. Construction is set to begin in early 2018. While the developers say they hope to keep Tamarind Tree as a tenant when Asian Plaza reopens in 2020—Nguyen was told his restaurant would be one of the first businesses to reopen in the new building—the rent will be going up.
"A little bit [of an increase for the developers] might be different for us," said Nguyen. "When we understand that increase, we'll be able to determine whether we'll be able to stay in the neighborhood."
Beloved restaurants like Tamarind Tree and neighboring Sichuanese Cuisine aren't the only Asian Plaza tenants facing displacement. Vital community service organizations Puget Sound Sage and Helping Link will be impacted, too.
Minh-Duc Pham Nguyen, executive director for Helping Link, said her clients are predominantly Vietnamese immigrants who come to the center for English language classes and to feel connected to their community. Pham Nguyen said her nonprofit operates on a very small budget, which requires up to two years of advanced planning—and in a real-estate boom that's sending rents soaring, two years is an eternity. Uncertainty about the timeline for Asian Plaza's redevelopment also has Pham Nguyen concerned.
Asian Plaza's tenants, like so many other small-business owners impacted by redevelopment across the city, say the developer heading up the project is keeping them in the dark about construction plans. Their concerns echo those expressed by tenants of the Central District's Promenade 23, which was bought by Vulcan, Paul Allen's real-estate arm, for $30.9 million in February. Unlike Vulcan, however, the developer behind the Asian Plaza project is no stranger to the community.
"Why is it that the ID can't have modern buildings like Capitol Hill?"
Dennis Chinn, 70, asked me that question during a phone interview about his planned redevelopment of Asian Plaza. Chinn, who is an American citizen of Chinese descent, inherited Asian Plaza from his late wife Susan's parents, Wilce and Mitsuko Shiomi. His in-laws opened Connors Furniture and Appliance Store in the plaza after returning from the Tule Lake Japanese internment camp in California in the 1940s. Chinn and his wife took ownership of the plaza in the 1980s and later converted it into a strip mall.
Asian Plaza is a collection of low-rise structures surrounded by a large, sloping parking lot. It's the kind of development despised by urbanists, and the buildings in Asian Plaza, like others across the International District, are showing wear and tear.
Chinn has watched sleek new buildings go up all over Capitol Hill and asks why the International District has been ignored by local developers. "They treat the International District like it's a third-world country," he said. Chinn and his sons Nate and Brian plan to convert their property into a mixed-use building, which they say will include a hotel, a community theater, senior care, retail stores, condos, and affordable housing units. The Chinns plan to build around 240 apartments in the plaza, and 20 percent—roughly 48 units—will be affordable housing units.
"There's a real need for workforce housing, and not just for people working at minimum wage," said Nate Chinn, 40, Dennis's eldest son. "Currently, there's very little housing in the International District, and rents are rising quickly. People with blue-collar jobs should be able to live closer to their place of employment."
Ensuring longtime International District residents weren't displaced from their neighborhood was "Uncle" Bob Santos's lifelong mission. Santos, a beloved activist and former director of the InterIm Community Development Association, passed away last month. So would redeveloping Asian Plaza be something Uncle Bob would've supported?
InterIm doesn't have an official position on the Chinns' legacy project, which is still in its early stages, but the organization is concerned that small businesses will be displaced, Tom Im, InterIm's community development and sustainability director, told The Stranger via e-mail.
Additionally, the Chinn family "needs to welcome and not displace the small businesses and nonprofits that exist there now, provide affordable housing in a neighborhood that has always been well below Seattle's median income and is under constant threat of displacement and gentrification, improve public spaces for the community, and reflect the culture and population that has historically called Chinatown-ID and Little Saigon home," he said.
Although the Chinns wouldn't put a price tag on the project, their plans suggest that the new plaza isn't going to be cheap—and they're clearly planning to recoup their investment by building as many market-based units as possible. Setting aside 20 percent of the new housing units as affordable meets only the minimum number of units to qualify for the city's multifamily tax exemption program.
Nevertheless, seeing someone who has long been involved in Little Saigon lead a neighborhood redevelopment project is preferable to outsiders coming in to remake the neighborhood, said Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), a community service provider. (Winkler-Chin is a distant relative of Dennis Chinn.) Better the Chinn family than Vulcan, Inc.
"It sounds like it's a good deal—local property owners who are more caring than a for-profit developer with no face," said Winkler-Chin.
Duc Tran, owner of the Viet Wah grocery store, which opened in Asian Plaza in 1988, said that he is thrilled that someone is committed to rejuvenating the plaza. Tran's store will be the anchor tenant of the new building and he's joined the Chinns' development team as an adviser.
But other tenants are worried. Their first concern is being forced to close during the first wave of construction and potentially being priced out once the new Asian Plaza is complete.
Nate Chinn confirmed that rents would have to go up once the new complex is finished. His family has offered tenants below-market rent for many years, he claimed, and they've pledged to ease their tenants through the transition by subsidizing rents for a limited time once the new Asian Plaza is complete.
Pham Nguyen of Helping Link and Nguyen of Tamarind Tree said they are happy to see someone investing in their community. The plaza is a beloved fixture of Little Saigon, a place where they, and many other Vietnamese families, take their children to hear Vietnamese being spoken, to eat traditional foods, and to engage with their culture. The tenants just hope their concerns will be taken into consideration, they said.
Those concerns go beyond rising rents and temporary closures. They also want to ensure that the new plaza's design will reflect the heritage of the Little Saigon district.
But Asian Plaza's tenants have their doubts.
"The [proposed] building doesn't represent the Little Saigon district. It doesn't have that cultural sensitivity in the design," said Nguyen, who is also a board member of Friends of Little Saigon, a neighborhood improvement organization. "For us as a community, when you come to Little Saigon, you come for a different flavor, not the same thing [you'd see] in Capitol Hill."