The developers presenting plans for a colossal mixed-use project at South Dearborn Street and Rainier Avenue South are careful not to use words like "big box," and they eschew comparisons to poorly planned shopping centers like Northgate or suburban-style malls like Southcenter. But to business leaders in Little Saigon, the project still sounds like a big-box-ridden, Northgate-esque, suburban-mall monstrosity.

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The proposed development, called simply "Dearborn Street" will occupy 10 acres, and would be located about two blocks south of Little Saigon. Most of the land is owned by Goodwill, which is willing to trade its acres to Ravenhurst Development and partner Seattle-based TRF Pacific in exchange for a new store and warehouses on the same site.

The rest of the land is either occupied by light industry or is unoccupied, leaving the developers free to sell 600,000 square feet of retail space. (Compare that to the roughly 200,000 square feet that is Little Saigon.)

Dearborn Street would have two big-box retailers, like Target and Home Depot, along with several midsize retailers, like a grocery store or bank. And there would be 30 to 40 small shops and restaurants to fill out the space. Designs show a glossy, lushly landscaped complex, which would contrast sharply with Little Saigon, where cars breathe hot exhaust onto treeless sidewalks and shops float amid the broken pavement of strip-mall surface parking.

The project depends on the city council's adoption of zoning changes—a rise in the height limit from 65 to 85 feet and a change in the designation from industrial to neighborhood commercial. A city study last year recommended those changes, but for developers with millions invested, gaining community support would go a long way toward securing votes when the changes come before the council next summer.

Over the next three months there will be public meetings—and Little Saigon figures to be the hardest neighbor to convince. The community's primary concern is traffic. The development calls for about 2,300 new underground parking stalls, making it a destination for shoppers from around the area.

"You have this big project that will burn all the infrastructure here," says Danny Tran, who works at JTD Real Estate on 12th Avenue near Jackson Street. "It's already congested... and when it becomes congested, people don't want to come here."

Dearborn Street would also add 400 to 500 apartments in three or four stories of housing to be constructed above the retail stores. Business owners are glad to have the new customers that would come from those apartments, but after the project raises property values, those businesses may have to pay higher rent—in some cases, so high that they can't afford to stay.

"The neighborhood would lose its character if the businesses had to move to Federal Way or White Center," says Tran. "We're centrally located and we're part of this colorful selection of people."

A few doors north on 12th Avenue is the Jackson Vision Clinic, owned by Michele Hoang and her husband, Lehuy. They rent their building but they are considering buying it. Now the Hoangs wonder whether the big-box retailers at Dearborn Street will have an eye clinic, or if any of the project's 30 to 40 shops will be eye clinics.

"It's not like we're resistant to change," says Hoang. "My husband and I are just concerned about the unknown." The Hoangs live in the suburbs, but every weekend they bring their children to Little Saigon to experience Vietnamese culture. "Right now we have a very concentrated community," she says. "I'm afraid with that project... (it) will basically dilute it."

Darrell Vange, development manager of TRF Pacific, insists that the shopping complex he plans won't compete with Little Saigon. "It's an ethnic clientele," says Vange, of the Vietnamese district. "Customers shop there because the merchants know their names and speak their language and carry very specific products. That's not going to change, and we're not going to be able to provide that kind of service to that ethnic group."

Vange thinks Dearborn Street is more likely to augment existing Little Saigon commerce. While his development will house three to four restaurants, the roughly 1,000 new residents will surely visit the restaurants in adjacent neighborhoods. The shoppers who drive to Dearborn Street may stop at a Little Saigon store they encounter along the way, or walk to the district along pedestrian-friendly streets that will be added by the developers.

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Last week, Vange submitted a report to the city on the project's impact on local traffic, which he characterized as "far less severe than people (in the neighborhood) are expecting."

The question is whether this project, and others like it, are inevitable—and if so, whether the Little Saigon business community ought to grow along with the increased density of residents and commerce. "Eventually, we have to adapt," says Tran. "I don't think that's our problem. Our problem is that all of a sudden we'll have a tremendous amount of traffic... and it could be a sudden blow to the community. It could be a sudden death."

tfrancis@thestranger.com

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