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Friday, June 30, 2006

Big Box vs. Little Saigon

Posted by on June 30 at 19:39 PM

Big box. Mall. Northgate. These are the words that Darrell Vange does not use when talking about the colossal project he’s proposed for a 10-acre site that lies northwest of Rainier Avenue South and South Dearborn Street.

There’s a commercial district two blocks away — Little Saigon, at the intersection of 12th and Jackson. About 10 of these first and second-generation Vietnamese businessowners attended the June 27 design review meeting, and Vange’s presentation sounded to them like big box, mall, and Northgate, all of which could spell doom for their district.

“This project has the potential to displace this community,” says Danny Tran, of JTD Real Estate, on 12th near Jackson.

Before we consider that issue, let’s get a visual overview of this project’s massive scale. Using Microsoft’s new mapping toy, here is a look at the site:

Goodwill Site.jpg

Sorry it’s so small, but it’s hard to zoom because the site’s so big. That’s Rainier Avenue running along the picture’s right side. And that’s Dearborn along the bottom, which is the southern border. At the top is Weller Street, which represents the site’s northern border. It reaches west to 13th Avenue South.

Most of this site (7.5 acres of it) is owned by Goodwill. That’s its thrift store in the middle of the photo and its warehouses to the right. Goodwill has needed a new building for some time. About seven years ago the nonprofit was set to trade its land for a new building, but the developer Wright Runstad had planned to sell office space to dot-commers. When the dot-coms went bust so did the new Goodwill building.

In swooped Vange, who had been eying the site since the mid-1990s. And rather than offices he envisions a mix of retail and residential. Lots and lots of both. Goodwill get its new building, a sprawling 120,000 square feet, part of which will be the thrift store. Here is the view of the current Goodwill from Dearborn and Corwin.

Goodwill 1.jpg

We’ll zoom in.
Goodwill 2.jpg

And this is the new Goodwill:
Goodwill Building.JPG
Thanks to TRF Pacific for the rendering

The thrift store is on the ground floor. Above that will be the adult education classrooms.

But in addition to the Goodwill site, Vange and Ravenhurst Development plan 600,000 square feet of retail. Consider that Northgate North (anchored by Target and Best Buy) is only about 400,000. And if you want to understand what has Little Saigon worried, its commercial district is only about 200,000 square feet.

More photos and details about the conflict with Little Saigon after the jump.

What can you do with 600,000 square feet of retail? Vange says he's courting two "very large tenants" (read: big box, like Home Depot, Office Depot, Target, Best Buy, etc.), four medium tenants (like a grocery store or bank), and 30-40 small tenants (which will include restaurants, cell phone stores, hair salons, dry cleaners and the like).

So this plot of land along Dearborn, near Corwin . . .

Goodwill 3.jpg

would look like this:

Corwin & Dearborn.JPG

You can see how there will be two stories of retail and that there wil be a courtyard in the middle.

On the right side of that rendering, you can make out the entrance to the parking garage below the shopping center. Vange says this site will have 2,000 parking spaces. But since it's a sloped site, Vange says most of those parking spots will built into the slope and appear to be underground. There is no surface parking.

Vange didn't want to compare his development to another; he said "There are no projects in the country similar to this." But I told him that -- except for the lack of surface parking -- it reminded me of University Village, and he said it was a fair comparison.

But the other major difference is that the proposal calls for 3 - 4 stories of residential development over the retail. This is a mammoth mixed-use project, which Vange hopes makes it seem more urban than suburban. He is currently negotiating with apartment developers who would buy the space above the retail, then develop it as he sees fit. Some of the apartments will qualify as affordable housing (80 percent of Seattle mean income) and the rest, says Vance, will be "moderately priced." He doesn't yet know the ratio of one to the other.

While Vange swears the project won't resemble Northgate (or Southcenter) in the least, he says it will attract shoppers from downtown who want Northgate-style stores in a more pedestrian environment. He also is targeting Madison Park, Capitol Hill, the Denny Regrade, Beacon Hill and Central District.

Currently, there is no road connecting Dearborn with Weller. This project calls for one, and Vange contends this will lead pedestrians to wander out of his development toward Little Saigon.

In addition the development will add a road that is accessible from Rainier. Here is a picture looking west across Rainier, from Lane Street.

Rainier & Lane 1.jpg

And here is that same view, with the artist rendering.

Rainier & Lane.JPG

But all of these plans depend on a contract re-zone. Currently, the site is zoned industrial and the building height limit is 65 feet. Vange is asking for a neighborhood commercial designation, with a height increase to 85 feet.

He is optimistic because those standards are the same as the ones recommended by the Department of Planning and Development's South Downtown planning project, which issued a preliminary report last year. Those recommendations will go before City Council for approval next summer. Because this is a quasi-judicial matter, council members cannot publicly express opinions about the proposed changes in code.

The opposition in Little Saigon and -- to a slightly lesser extent -- the International District will complicate the politics of this decision. It pits the council's interest in promoting density against its interest in the health of minority-owned businesses.

I have spoken to businessowners in Little Saigon and I will have much more from their perspective in next week's issue. Generally speaking, they are most concerned about how the in flux of new residents and stores will affect the automobile traffic -- which is a major problem even now. Little Saigon businessowners do not believe pedestrians will leave the confines of the new shopping center, and that they will lose some of their current customers to those stores. Finally, they are concerned about how the shopping center and apartments will affect the urban character of their neighborhood.

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Looks good to me. That particular area is way underdeveloped (although the Goodwill is the best thrift store around, in my opinion).

Little Saigon, to the north, is not very "urban" - it's a bunch of strip malls with little housing.

Chinatown, to the west, is OK but underdeveloped - quite a lot of it consists of street level retail with abandoned (due to fire code) apartments above, next to surface parking lots. It's picking up though, and there are about half a dozen projects being constructed right now.

Something to keep in mind is that this would be about half a mile (usually considered the limit people will walk to/from transit) from the International Station on the future light rail line, and you'd walk through both Chinatown and Little Saigon to get there.

Do it!!!! Little Saigon sucks anyway, and we need affordable stores in the CD/downtown. It's ridiculous we have to go to Southcenter or Northgate to buy normal everyday stuff.

Look at Rainier Avenue. There are so many small businesses, mixed in with some big box stores that seem to have no problem making it on that congested artery. I think Little Saigon could make it and would stand to gain more with this development, so long as it is designed as proposed. I ride my bike on Dearborn often, it seems underused for such a central street, so I think it could handle more traffic. The city of Chicago worked out an agreement with Wal-Mart before allowing them to develop. They addressed similar concerns of the local business community by not allowing Wal-Mart to carry products similar to those of the local businesses. Could the city of Seattle do the same with the Target and other retailers that are envisioned for the site?

Huh. For a pro-density newsrag, you folks sure seem to bitch about development a lot.

"It pits the council's interest in promoting density against its interest in the health of minority-owned businesses."

This is key. At what point does ecomic development become gentrification?

I'm glad to read that Tom Francis brings some class analysis to the job.

Wow. As a kid in Seattle, the Dearborn Goodwill was one of my very favorite places in this town. The museum and the hydro, the classic cafeteria with great hot dogs, a huge selection of clothes that you could afford, the cool knick-knacks, tool and toy sections, and racks and racks of dirt cheap books on 1000 subjects that you could read for as long as you liked - it's right up there with JP Patches and the Science Center for me.

That said, I can see why they want to redevelop, build some leasable space, and use the revenue to further their mission. But why does it have to be so monolithic? So big? So out of scale with the existing businesses of Little Saigon and the International District?

The developers who are partnering with Goodwill want to vacate the existing street right of way to make the project this size and a contract rezone for their height increase, so they don't necessarily have a legal right to build to the scale they propose.

Projects are being built all around the city without these bonuses. Given the size of the lot, and what they are allowed to build already, the developers could probably scale this project back by 1/4 and it would still be a sizable development that would yield sizeable profits.

Bigger is not always better, and upzoning large areas near historic districts and fragile communities that are worth preserving is a dangerous precedent.

I don't think Tom is bitching about this development, but writing about it. Some people are worried, and he gives them some space; he also talk to the developer.

The important thing is to prevent a driver mecca from moving in. If it's a pedestrian mall, then great. But we really don't need to be attracting yet more cars into an already car dense area.
Little Saigon has it's share of cars, but if you've ever riddent the buses through there you know how many folks, mostly older asian folks, get there by bus.
Also Dearborn is part of the main I-90 bike commmute corridor. Any development of this sort there would have to include some sort of traffic mitigation plan for the bike commute. (E.g. an 8 foot bike lane past it, a single signaled driveway on Dearborn.)

Mr. X posts: "Given the size of the lot, and what they are allowed to build already, the developers could probably scale this project back by 1/4 and it would still be a sizable development that would yield sizeable profits."

Without a glimpse at the pro forma, it's impossible to gauge profitability on a project as complex as this. Scaling back would probably mean eliminating some or all of the (very much more expensive per square foot) residential and small commercial components, as the big box retailers are much cheaper to build for--one tenant is always simpler to suit than ten, after all. Another casualty might be the more affordable (i.e., smaller) apartments. Larger, luxury units can be cheaper to build per square foot. And though I am a big fan of Saigon Deli (try the barbeque pork and tofu sandwiches, still a deal at $1.25 each), and Szechzuan Cuisine (try the Hot Pot), as well as that great, cheap grocery store right at 12th and Jackson, gotta say that the architectural and urban street design of the Little Saigon strip malls are deadening. The vitality of the area exists despite the horribleness of the anti-pedestrian layout of the area. Why not start agitating at Preliminary Design Review meetings and other public forums for priority consideration and rent breaks for tenants of the new project that come from existing neighborhood businesses? Or parking reciprocity for the new project and adjacent neighborhood businesses?

holy crap. This is potentially one of the best development plans near downtown I've seen in a long time, and people are bitching about it? Why?!? underground parking, pedestrian friendly, fantastic mix of retail and housing, Goodwill gets a swanky new home, and Little Saigon gets double or triple the shopper traffic. Anyone who thinks little Saigon loses in this is high on crack. This is exactly the kind of density planning we need more of in this city. People would live and shop here, take transit into downtown, work at Amazon or the stadiums or in downtown, and the all parts of the ID get a boost from a retail magnet.

I agree, if it's done so it's not only car-oriented, it could be good, especially with 4-5 stories of residential above, and nearby access to LINK lightrail, Sounder, I-90, and I-5.

The major question will be the street feel. And the need for pocket parks. If you build totally soulless, you kill it. If you make it very ID, good ethnic feel, could be very good, especially if heavy transit use, and especially if it stops people from driving to Northgate/Southgate/etc for big box.

Perhaps - but Rainer/Dearborn is already a congested nightmare (try being stuck on King in front of the Hau Hau parking garage and you'll know what I'm talking about). I do think this could be a good shot of retail adrenaline for the area (i really don't see anything else going in there -- small pike/pine boutiques would crash and burn) - but it could also force out the mom and pop operations (Rising Sun produce?) that thrive from having cheap rent and street parking. Once again - consider flavor over convenience.

Density is always good. It means better restaurants, healthier living, and great nightlife. You can't fight progress.

Developer guy,

So are you saying nothing will be built there unless they get their upzone and street vacation? Given the size of the lot and what they could build under the existing zoning, I think that's pretty obviously not the case. Rather, they are trying to do what any economic actor would do in that situation - mazimize their potential revenue. That doesn't mean that their ability to maximize their revenue ought to trump existing land use rules and the scale of their neighborhood, however.

This reminds me of Greg Smith trying to get the WOSCA property upzoned to 105'. As one developer I know said to me, if you can't make money on a lot that size under the current zoning (which, under the Nickels Administration, still has holes big enough to drive a Hummer through) you ought to get into another line of business.

"Anyone who thinks little Saigon loses in this is high on crack."

You might ask the businesses and residents of the ID and Little Saigon about that. Evidently they don't know what's in their best interest nearly as well as you do.

As usual, the local business community makes a stink because

1.) They want to get something out of it


2.) They don't want anything that might compete with them.

Human nature, but not something to be overly worred about.

Little Saigon and the Goodwill spot are in close proximity space-wise, but not from a pedestrian or car standpoint. Besides, the whole little Saigon business district is a dump that appeals mostly to a very narrow population. I doubt they'll be tempted by whatever goes in that location.

But as usual, we're channeling the supposed emotions of the locals, and trying to bask in what we perceive is their victimhood. We are always looking for a reason to get our panties in a bunch.

Sure, they could make money in that spot without an upzone, but I don't see shorter buildings as a goal, personally. They could build 1000 feet high for all I care.

I'm mostly thinking that it's walking distance to light rail (which, it should be clear by now, is the only transit we're getting in this city), so we should get as much out of that area as possible.

Unless I'm missing something, the project is not requesting a street vacation, but two additions of streets: a pedestrian-friendly road through the project connecting Weller and Dearborn, and one other road leading from Rainier into the project. It's hard to imagine these roads in any other way than as amenities for the neighborhood, as they will make the 10-acre site more open. The other requested change that the Slog piece notes is a rezone, and as Mr. X would, I think, agree, such a change should always be treated by the city as something not given lightly. The developer asking for the rezone ought to demonstrate a public good served by the change. That said, it is evident that the present industrial zoning for the parcel is archaic and not in line with likely uses for the location in 2006. Even the Goodwill uses included its retail store, already a variance (with the warehouse serving as an industrial use). That's a precedent that Vange might well use to help make the case for the rezone. The pedestrian- and bike-access for the area, the continued accomodation for Goodwill and all its services, and the inclusion of below-market rate housing will also help build Vange's case that the project brings good things to the neighborhood. Will in Seattle's idea of a pocket park or kinaidos' idea for a bike lane on Dearborn are more things the community could ask Vange to pay for in return for the rezone.


I'm sensitive to the "we're just reporting" argument, but be serious for a're actually suggesting that the thesis of this post isn't "Big Development project may hurt Little Saigon?" Look at the title of the post, for christ's sake!

The current angle is about as anti-development as you can get, without actually taking a stance on the issue. You could easily make the story about a handful of cranky neighbors resisting density (and thus adding to the expense and ridiculous process of development in Seattle).

For the record, I don't necessarily think that you should write the story as blatantly pro-development, but don't try to convince me that your current angle is objective.

If you want to take the side of the little guy because it sells papers, fine. Just try to remember that the little guy doesn't undertake urban development projects, the next time you get a density rant stuck in your craw.

Regarding the upzone:

I keep in mind the upzone that was granted along Broadway. Without this upzone, many property owners said that there wasn't the return on investment that they needed to invest their time and money. They got the upzone, and voila, we have 500 units proposed for the Safeway and QFC sites.

Regarding the clutching of pearls over big box retailers and having 'suburban' type stores. I welcome it. I live on capitol hill, and I'll be able to walk/bike to a target now and still be home in a reasonable amount of time. As it currently stands, you have two busses to take to get the Northgate area from Capitol Hill/ID/Belltown/Rainier Valley neighborhoods. The only large discount store between Northgate and SW Seattle is the Fred Meyer's at 85th and in Ballard. Neither of which is very accessible from the center of the city on public transit. A Target would be extremely welcomed for this neighborhood, as it will definitely have a built in audience of people who live wihtin 2 miles of the center. Build it, trust me, they will come.

Nobody is going to walk there from the International District bus tunnel or light rail stop. I walk 1/2 - 1 mile to and from the bus each day and I'm very much on my own. There's a reason they want a 2000 car parking garage there.

Make that a 2,300 stall parking garage.

Something tells me that pedestrian issues aren't first ont he developer's list.

In reply to the comment by 'la la la...'(July 1): Anybody who thinks the Little Saigon businesses are playing the victimhood card cannot be more wrong. They're either incredibly ignorant of the realities of the situation or their sense of reality is incredibly distorted.

Many of the people who own these businesses came to this country with next to nothing, worked many menial jobs scrapping together enough money to start a business in pursuit of their own version of the American Dream.

They work 12-14 hours a day to keep these businesses going so they could feed their children, put a roof over their heads, and save enough to ensure a secure retirement. They weren't dealt the best cards in the deck but they're doing the best they can with the hand dealt to them. A victim is someone who is powerless in the face of circumstances. These people wrestled with their circumstances and made a livelihood out of it.

This is just another battle they're facing in their struggle to assert themselves as new Americans. Their reactions may seem "emotional" to some but when you invest the sweat, tears and long hours like these people have into their businesses you will damn well fight with passion anything that might threaten your livelihood. This is something faced by other groups before them and will surely happen again with the next immigrant or refugee group.

Little Saigon may seem like a "dump" to some but consider what was there over 25 years ago: a high-crime area full of abandoned buildings and drug dealers. It took a lot of guts to open and maintain a business there. The individuals who took the risk saw an opportunity to make a living to support their family. They weathered many years in a dangerous environment until things began to turn around. Today this "dump" is a thriving business district providing livelihoods and services for many families.

And it's still evolving. If asked, most individuals in this community wants to make it an even better place. They would like to see it being more pedestrian-friendly and have higher density. They want to make it into a place that has a unique ethnic flavor yet is still welcoming to all who want to enjoy it regardless of race or ethnicity.

The question is not whether or not people in Little Saigon want more density and development. The question is whether new developments in this neighborhood will have some soul and character, or be a nice shiny box that you can find in Anywhere, USA.

How many people actually bring their out-of-town guests to check out Bellevue Square?

A Nony Mouse,

Little guy might not "undertake urban development projects", but big guy is not neccessarily unjust and insensitive neither. It is nowaday's trend in developements and investments that companies are encouraged and missioned to employ delicate and ethically possible methods of doing business and, at the same time, not to alienate but to sustain the micro-environments surrounding it. Why settle for any developments or any investments when, as little people, we can select, among the big guys, just partners who would appreciate the opportunity and the challenge of doing business profitably but yet equitably? So, is it not the little guy who has been on the look out for us all thru-out this mankind's struggle on knowing what is just distribution of social goods and recognition? At somewhere, sometime or under certain circumstance in life, we all are little guy for some just cause; and we're desperately needed to be heard.

No! This little guy is for good progress, pro-developement and density; it's the Wal-Mart type crash-the-party-for-everyone invasion that could in a heartbeat turns the Downtown neighborhood businesses into painful memories, it's the casinos that replaced the good old family nights at the bowling alleys that the little guy is desperastely trying to keep out!

No! No! Actually this is not only a little guy vs big guy issue; this is the issue about self-sustaining, smart-management, and temperance that it is worth it for the people of Little Saigon, of the Downtown District, and of Seattle's, as a whole, to be sleepless with!

Danny Tran

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