A photo across the top of the Dearborn Street Coalition's website shows 14 Vietnamese young adults holding a banner emblazoned, "Save Our Little Saigon." But despite the neighborhood coalition's proud announcement in early September that it had signed a contract with a mall developer to provide more neighborhood amenities, Little Saigon may need more saving than ever.

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Anchored on South Jackson Street, the neighborhood is lined with immigrant-owned jewelry stores, pho restaurants, and bustling grocery shops. Most of the buildings are squat, and the rents are affordable. But that could change.

The Dearborn Street Coalition boasts 40 member organizations on its website. However, several of the people involved in the coalition complain that only four members of the steering committee, including the Washington Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce (WAVA), signed the deal with Dearborn Street Developers, which is building a mall on the current Goodwill site at South Dearborn Street and Rainier Avenue. Led by Puget Sound Sage, a housing and labor nonprofit organization, the coalition is mostly made up of labor, housing, and business interests. But several other organizations that represent residents and merchants, such as representatives of Squire Park and the International District, feel betrayed.

"Some groups within the Vietnamese community were not part of the decision-making process and think that WAVA wasn't very inclusive," says Tom Im, neighborhood planner for Inter*Im Community Development Association, a coalition member that advocates for responsible development in the International District. He says members who opposed the development were "excluded from discussions." They had argued that the mall, which will include a 165,000-square-foot Target store, would compete with and threaten Little Saigon's independent businesses. The fallout could cause "a schism between the various Vietnamese organizations," Im says.

"This kind of deal is really deceptive and not good enough for the community to take," says neighborhood activist Quynh-Tram Nguyen. She says details of the proposal were never disclosed to many Vietnamese business owners, who now "do not know what they can say" in the neighborhood. In late August, Nguyen and her husband circulated bilingual flyers to Little Saigon business owners in an effort to inform them about the changes to the neighborhood.

But WAVA director Quang Nguyen thinks the coalition got a good deal under the circumstances. The development, he says, is "like a big wave... coming at us. Either we learn to surf it or we try to stop it and we will be swamped." He cites the best features of the deal, including $200,000 toward a Vietnamese community center and 200 units of low-income housing. Nonetheless, the mall and a simultaneous upzone in south downtown, which would replace many older buildings with high-rent modern ones, may come at a long-term cost to a neighborhood whose independent businesses and low-income residents are increasingly threatened by rising rents and big-box competition. recommended

dominic@thestranger.com