Personal testimony at the Hearing on Rezoning

In Cộng Đồng, LittleSaigon - Seattle on 2008/09/22 at 17:08

September 22, 2008

Hearing Examiner

700 5th Ave, Suite 4000

PO Box 94729

Seattle, WA 98124-4729


Public Testimony on the Dearborn Project—a proposal for 1400 South Dearborn Street by Darell Vange, Ravenhurst Development, Application Number 3001242

Madam Examiner and Council Members:

My name is Quynh-Tram H. Nguyen, and beside me is my husband, Hieu Nguyen. We are currently residents of Seattle. We have been the engaged community members and organizers in different residences from Orange County, California, to Olympia and Seattle. Since 1982, my husband had served on the board of the Vietnamese Mutual Association of Olympia, the Thurston County Refugee Center, and as the school principal of the Hung Vuong—a Vietnamese Language School in Olympia. I myself had worked as licensed family psychotherapist for 6 years serving a diverse population of Caucasian, Vietnamese, Latino, and other South East Asian origins. Before becoming a Seattle resident, I also served as the Co-Chair of a non-profit organization named Vietnamese American Human Services Association (VAHSA). In addition, since 1994 I have been a grassroots activist within the Asian community where I has followed my passion for empowering and advocating for women and children. I am currently pursuing my doctoral study at the University of Washington. My teaching/research focuses on the intersection of Performance Studies and Community Development of the Vietnamese diaspora. Finally yet importantly, we are both currently peace activist and regular volunteers at the Vietnamese Senior Association of Seattle.

Today, we are making a public statement regarding the Dearborn Project. We have been interested in the development of its proposal since 2006. Eventually, we have intensively engaged with other Vietnamese Americans and neighborhood activists about this “so-called development” project since the beginning of this year. We are concerning about the Vietnamese Americans’—especially the impacted merchants’—lack of thorough understanding of this Dearborn project with complex procedures and processes. We also believe that they did not have enough opportunities to understand and provide their own input about the negative impacts of the Dearborn project. Certainly, there is little decent public engagement for the Vietnamese community regarding an extensive review process about the project. Therefore, we urge you to (1) consider the serious impacts of the project and to ensure it is adequately conditioned in your recommendation to the City Council; (2) not to approve the rezone because of impacts due to the inconsistency with the City Comprehensive plan; and (3) ensure the rezone recommendation be brought back to Department of Planning and Development (DPD) so that more adequate and complete analyses and recommendations could be made before it goes to the City Council.

We are very concerned about the causes and psychological consequences of gentrification due to this huge mall project scale and scope. We examine through different means on how this rezoning project would affect the Vietnamese merchants as well as residents in and beyond Little Saigon area. Attached is a copy of our research with all the highlighted media pieces of a three-year period. These articles demonstrated the majority of legitimate opinions and concerns against gentrification until very recently. In spite of lack of public assistance, we have worked constantly to educate ourselves and then attempted to inform the Vietnamese about these urban development issues. Why do we care, you would ask? We care because displacement is a serious phenomenon that we never desire for anyone to experience again. In fact, both I and my husband (as the majority of Vietnamese Americans) were displaced within our own country due to the war impacts and before the Vietnam War was over, and subsequently displaced from Vietnam to stay in the limbo state within Southeast Asia refugee camps prior to our migration to the United States. We were called the “boat people” finally coming to America with our empty hand and yet enormous hope for freedom of expression and better livelihood.

As the US citizens, we are eager in contributing to our new homeland while sustaining and nurturing our four-thousand-year cultural roots. Wherever we resettle, we consciously seek Little Saigon to come and connect with others in various ways. There is no doubt that Little Saigon made us feel home. We cultivate this symbolic home through everyday memories and collective engagement in our new adaptation. Overall, Little Saigon demonstrates how its unique life benefits diverse groups of individuals: refugees with limited English gain employment, Vietnamese elders find comfort, and “Americanized” immigrants and their children connect with ancestral culture. The non-Vietnamese neighborhood residents also expressed to us their appreciation toward Little Saigon of Seattle for having their basic needs (i.e. groceries) met at modest prices. Furthermore, in Little Saigon visitors are welcomed as customers to encounter qualities formerly experienced only through travel to other countries.

Our sense of belonging is often strengthened through Little Saigon’s tangible senses of taste, smell, sound, and sight not readily available anywhere else. It is a place where we can interact as a visible majority and openly practice cultural activities. Little Saigon is often regarded as a new form of urban village that offers an extended family where the lonely refugees, even if briefly, can be accepted. It allows all the engaged (regardless of social sector and ethnicity) to perceive the unique cultural character that the Vietnamese, as the minority group members, contribute to the US and provide the City of Seattle with substantial tax revenues. In other words, this area adjacent to the Seattle Chinatown affords us and many other Vietnamese a well recognized public identity and a sense of “being in the right place”—in spite of the perpetuation of stereotypes, erosion of ethnic boundaries and persistent forms of specialized crime that threaten the areas’ success and yield negative perceptions of the areas’ ethnic groups.

Due to such attachment to the Little Saigon of Seattle, we have made effort to organize public awareness gatherings regarding its current predicament. In addition, we utilized a street theater event on June 13, 2008, to raise communal attention on the impacts of the Dearborn project. As the result, attached to this public testimony is our postcard sample that we used to collect more than 500 signatures mostly signed by the Vietnamese Americans. The number of signatures is not a huge but significant one. It does strongly indicate that these signers are courageous. If you understand the impacts of their historical trauma, you would understand the weight of each signature. One signature could represent hundred of signatures. Because of many political upheavals and abusive governments in Vietnam as well as their subsequent displacement trauma, the Vietnamese Americans have become very cautious in providing any signatures. The signatures on these postcard show the acts of concerned citizens who care very much about Little Saigon. They took risks to confirm their opposition of not having a voice in the process. All of these postcard signatures will be forwarding to the Seattle Department of Transportation within a couple of weeks as our recommendation for better and thorough analyses prior to any City action.

To obtain a basic understanding of the merchants’ needs and wants, we ourselves conducted a preliminary survey with them in the Little Saigon of Seattle. Almost all the merchants are renters. They shared that they are not aware, being informed, or even mis-informed about the impacts and/or the remedial benefits declared in the Dearborn Agreement with the developers. Being caught with daily survival and deal with many barriers (such as language, class, technological skill, waves of migration, etc.) have prevented them to involve in this public review process in order to advocate for themselves and protect their rights. The expressions were often conveyed to us are the following: many fears of intimidation, lots of confusion and apathy, and/or being very skeptical toward the offering benefits as the developer’s true concerns about their possible plight of displacement. They could not imagine how life would become if the project is approved without any consideration for justice. Attached to our public testimony is the list of the merchants we have talked to during this preliminary survey.

In fact, the merchants’ real concerns are increasing rent, loss of customers due to congested traffic , and erasing their cultural space . Moreover, many Vietnamese in Seattle and surrounding cities (from Everett, Bellevue, Kent, Tacoma, Olympia, …) who converge to the Little Saigon as their public space have grave concern on loss of cultural history and identity . The out-of-scale, out-of-character shopping mall will overwhelm the “little” Saigon, squeeze the neighborhood, and displace them. This encroachment and resulting displacement will not have just the negative economic impact. The displacement would cause a psychological health impact , particularly to the seniors, who grounded in Little Saigon as their home away from homeland. The area already is sufficiently zoned for retail. Those shopping districts should be allowed to develop organically and not induced to face an intervened competition due to this newly created super-size commercial district.

The DPD did not outreach sufficiently to a wide Vietnamese community on the negative impacts. The outreach has been oriented to elite group participation. In other words, the elaborate hierarchical representative structures have not achieved a sense of empowering or inclusion for less involved residents and ethnic communities. Moreover, the PDP did not have a systematic analysis of health consequences from effects on multi-layered factors such as displacement; land use density, design, and diversity; and public infrastructure.

In sum, we urge the Hearing Examiner not approve the rezone because of the serious impacts to the neighborhoods, and they are inconsistent with the City Comprehensive plan for the following reasons:

(1) Incompatibility with Neighborhood Character. This out-of-scale and out-of-character urban super-regional mall with major national retail chains as the major commercial mix right next to a tiny Little Saigon will overwhelm the Vietnamese cultural and public space. We therefore believe that this project is incompatible in scope, scale and nature with the existing fabric of the Little Saigon/International District, which is composed of small ethnically owned businesses. Moreover, the project is incompatible with the future vision for the ID community, as expressed through the ID’s participation in the Livable South Downtown planning process.

(2) Traffic Impacts. Increased congestion to the area will add to the existing problems of traffic and parking, especially in the Little Saigon area, which could result in a loss of local and regional patronage to the area’s businesses. Majority of Little Saigon patrons are out-of-area Vietnamese residents yet converge to the Little Saigon area to do shopping and business and attending cultural events. They will not bother to come when traffic getting worse.

(3) Overflow Parking. The overflow parking will influence tremendously the already crowded Little Saigon. The city paid research already indicated that business in Little Saigon has been negatively impacted since the implementation of Safeco Field and the Quest Field. Business is down during game days, particularly on weekend.

(4) Insufficient Outreach. There is not sufficient outreach to the Vietnamese merchants and other engaged citizens in the Little Saigon area. They are either completely not informed or mis-informed on the impacts and remedial benefits. (please see the attached survey and relevant testimonies)

We are submitting signatures of all individuals and organization representatives who agreed with our above reasons—explained in previous public meeting and now in this public testimony. Thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully yours,

Quynh-Tram H. Nguyen & Hieu Nguyen


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