Yesler Terrace redevelopment worries some in Little Saigon

By Will Livesley-O’Neill

Ongoing Yesler Terrace construction on Broadway (Photo by Han Bui/NWAW)

The Seattle City Council will soon vote on one of the largest redevelopment projects the city has faced in recent years: the replacement of historic Yesler Terrace with a new public housing community. The new Terrace, as outlined in legislation authored by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), will be an up-to-date, mixed-income facility located in the same spot where the current complex, the first publicly subsidized housing development in the state, stands overlooking downtown and the International District.

SHA’s proposal has not been met with enthusiasm by some in the neighborhoods surrounding Yesler Terrace, who fear a brand-new complex could raise property values and change the face of the area. The group leading the opposition is Friends of Little Saigon, a community development organization representing the heavily Vietnamese American section of the ID that abuts against the Terrace’s southern end.

“This proposal is speeding up the process of gentrification,” said Quang H. Nguyen, a member of Friends of Little Saigon’s steering committee. “It does not provide any investment in our neighborhood to help mitigate the forces of displacement.”

Nguyen said his group worries that the proposal, as it currently stands, focuses more on rezoning the Terrace to provide for high-rise housing than on engaging with the nearby community. The current Terrace is zoned LR-3, for low-rise units no more than three stories tall, while the new project could feature buildings as high as 300 feet, or 28 to 30 stories.

“We look around Seattle and we don’t see any other proposal for such a drastic rezone in the last 15 years or 20 years. Why is the city approving this? This will have a huge economic impact, as well as social impact, on the community in Yesler Terrace and around Yesler Terrace,” Nguyen said.

View of Yesler Terrace housing (Photo by Han Bui/NWAW)

The proposal would, if passed, create a complex featuring 5,000 new housing units, as well as retail offices and public green space. SHA has promised that the 561 low-income housing units in the current Terrace will be replaced and the new units will be guaranteed to current residents. The plan also calls for 1,240 additional units designated for lower income levels. The remaining units in the new Terrace — anywhere between 1,200 to 3,200, according to the proposal — would be listed at market rate.

“The main reason why they are raising the height is to get as much value, so they can sell it off to private developers,” Nguyen said. “If you develop an area, you need to think about affordability for small businesses. Building high rises is going to price a lot of the mom-and-pop shops out of the neighborhood.”

Friends of Little Saigon has sent SHA a counter-proposal for what they see as a more affordable and community-oriented development plan. Their proposal includes a height cap of 85 feet on most buildings in the new Terrace, though they are not opposed to a few high-rise buildings on the side of the development closest to Harborview Medical Center. It also calls for space for a southeast Asian grocery store, restaurants, offices for neighborhood nonprofit organizations, and a Vietnamese cultural center and performance space to be included in the redevelopment.

Nguyen said the current proposal all but ignores Little Saigon, mentioning impact mitigation only in the creation of a hill climb between the Terrace and the neighborhood that he says is only included because it is required by the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Spokeswoman Michelle Ackermann said SHA had received and was considering Friends of Little Saigon’s counter-proposal.

“From Seattle Housing’s perspective, there are some great possibilities in the proposal from Friends of Little Saigon, but what they’re proposing will take some time to put into reality,” she said.

“We’re eager to work with the city, Friends of Little Saigon, and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority [SCIDpda]. It’s just going to take some time to figure out what’s feasible. Seattle Housing fully supports integration of the Little Saigon and Yesler Terrace communities.”

SCIDpda is a community developer and Friends of Little Saigon’s fiscal agent. Its executive director, Maiko Winkler-Chin, said the counter-proposal caught her by surprise and that her organization was not involved in determining its vision. But she added that she understood Little Saigon’s gentrification concerns, given both the Terrace redevelopment and the construction of a streetcar through First Hill set to begin soon.

“We’ll do whatever we can to help them better secure their future. The Little Saigon neighborhood is really built on the feel of the small businesses in that area, and I understand wanting to preserve that,” Winkler-Chin said.

Friends of Little Saigon is collecting signatures on a petition in support of their counter-proposal. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the Yesler Terrace redevelopment project on Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 2 p.m. (end)

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