From parking lot land to tower land: the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Washington Street has been marked for proposed upzoning
  • R.B.
  • From parking lot land to tower land: the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Washington Street has been marked for proposed upzoning
Change is coming to Seattle’s International District, and depending on who you speak to, it may or may not be such a good thing. As part of the city’s Livable South Downtown plan, Chinatown/ID and Little Saigon—along with Pioneer Square and the stadium area—have been picked for a once-in-a-lifetime redevelopment opportunity, complete with open spaces, green streets, and mixed-use high-rise living.

The Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment is currently gauging the proposal, which is expected to come before the full council early next year. The ID community views the proposed project as a double-edged sword. They say that while more density would improve the cultural and economic vitality of the district, it could potentially price out existing mom-and-pop stores, who are already scraping by. “It’s important to preserve the cultural vibe in Little Saigon and the International District,” said Quang H. Nguyen, founding-member of the Washington Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, during a recent walking tour of the area with the Committee on Built Environment.

Nguyen pointed out that Little Saigon by itself supports about 60,000 people of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian descent. “We support rezoning to increase density, but building tall concrete and steel structures will only pass the cost down to small businesses and drive them out.” Most businesses in Chinatown/ID on average pay less than a $1.50 per sq. ft. for rent every month.

Nguyen, who also belongs to the Seattle Chinatown/ID Preservation and Development Authority, continued, “I am not saying we should preserve dilapidated buildings, but how do we preserve affordability of living in the city?” Similar rumblings can be heard in the adjacent Jackson Place neighborhood, which is filled with single-family homes and small businesses. Ryan Morgan, treasurer of the Jackson Place Neighborhood Council, said that the community is hesitant to support the proposed 65 feet to 85 feet building heights. “We are worried about land values going up, worried about shadows on the smaller houses—these ideas are exciting and disturbing at the same time,” he said.

They have a point. Sure, our skyline needs a few more buildings, but should it come at the cost of driving away that Chinese immigrant who spent all his life savings to open up a dollar store? Seattle Department of Planning and Development senior planner Susan McLean said that the city is doing everything it can to develop a more retail-friendly environment in Chinatown. Historic preservation and revitalization, development rights transfers to encourage rehabilitation of historic buildings and protection of affordable housing fall among DPD’s long-term goals for Chinatown/ID, she said. For instance, the highest recommended height of 240 feet in Chinatown/ID will not apply to affordable housing areas which DPD hopes will alleviate redevelopment pressure.

Support The Stranger

Regardless of zoning and redevelopment, small businesses in the ID are already at risk. Chinatown’s roughly 300 businesses saw their revenue plunge from $66 million in 1997 to $41 million in 2006.

Dollar store in Seattle Chinatown- show us what you got,
  • R.B.
  • Dollar store in Seattle Chinatown- show us what you got,
Trang D. Tu Consulting, the firm hired by the city to survey the economic impacts on Chinatown/ID from the proposed zoning changes, said at the built environment committee meeting Thursday that competition from other Asian markets, duplication of specialty stores and a perception by local shoppers about the lack of cleanliness no longer made Chinatown/ID a destination. In Little Saigon—which has 175 businesses (25 out of 35 restaurants are Vietnamese and there are 19 nail salons)—competition is intense. The survey showed that landlords in Little Saigon, many of whom have already battled the idea of a mall on Dearborn Street, had little interest in redevelopment even though it was possible under existing land use codes.

Rebranding Chinatown/International District is a big chunk of the project. In fact, there is even a merchandizing consultant who has been brought in to suggest some variety in food and retail (ahem, maybe something other than barbecue pork?).

We need this
  • R.B.
  • We need this

The first thing that struck me about the Chinatown/ID here was how boring it was. Where was the hustle and bustle, the colorful Chinese lanterns and streamers that are ubiquitous with Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco? Maybe Seattle likes its Chinatown low key, I thought then. But whaddya know, five years later I am sitting at a meeting where councilmembers are complaining about exactly that: the lack of vibrancy which could turn the place into a destination once again. If it were up to me, I would sign an ordinance today demanding that shopkeepers hang their wares outside for people to see (FYI, someone did complain in the survey that they were afraid to go into the stores because they couldn’t see what was being sold inside).The Committee on the Built Environment—which comprises of Council Members Sally Clark, Sally Bagshaw, and Tim Burgess—agree that pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, more trees, attractive storefronts and a cleaner environment would do wonders to the place. The upzoning can wait, let the rebranding begin.