SEATTLE — Thousands of discarded smoothie cups wound their way around Seattle’s International District in the aftermath of the McDonald’s-sponsored Dragon Fest in July. The 2012 festivities breathed new life into the district’s annual summer gathering and were punctuated with free McDonald’s smoothies for those willing to wait in line.
The irony that the golden arches acted as herald to the 25,000 festival visitors was not lost on those who remember that just over a decade ago, neighborhood residents, retailers, and politicians banded together to keep McDonald’s out.
In 2000, about a hundred people demonstrated outside the fast food chain’s location in downtown Seattle, ultimately thwarting efforts by McDonald’s executives to make permanent residence in the International District. Protestors argued that McDonald’s was the antithesis of the International District’s desire to maintain and preserve its historic and unique Asian character. They also said McDonald’s would attract loiterers and litterers.
Over a decade later, the prospect of a national business moving into the International District brings mixed feelings from local residents and business owners.
“When we see something like the Dragon Fest being sponsored by McDonald’s, it’s devastating to us,” says Imri Larsen, a graphic designer who works in the International District. He says the neighborhood’s local personality is threatened by larger western business chains.
Larsen’s company, TheNetworkof.com (NOC), currently located on 6th and Dearborn, had recently been in talks to move into a 600-square-foot retail space at the Milwaukee Building on South King Street. Larsen was planning on opening a coffee shop that would sell Vietnamese tea and Thai coffee. The shop would have also acted as a base of operations for NOC’s design work and allow artists to directly interact with the community, Larsen said.
After submitting a business plan, Larsen learned from the property’s real estate agent that the owner, Koh Family, LLC, was waiting to hear from national tenants before making a decision on local tenants.
Christopher Koh, of Koh Family, LLC, said there was no specific national tenant that they had in mind.
And, Koh Family, LLC’s preference for a national tenant is not based on past experiences with any particular local business, Koh explained.
“It’s true we prefer someone national, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily in talks with a national tenant,” Koh said.
Larsen said he is surprised that Koh Family, LLC does not want to fill the vacancy despite interest from local businesses. Larsen does, however, recognize the security of having a national tenant.
“I understand how [finding a national tenant is] appealing to a building owner because they know the capital is going to be there. It’s a lower risk for them,” Larsen said. “We’re just scared it’s going to be a Subway or some larger chain that really won’t mesh with this neighborhood. We’re disappointed we didn’t get the space but we’re more concerned about the integrity of the neighborhood.”
That concern is one that’s reflected throughout the International District’s recent history.
In 1998, plans for the construction of the 66,000-square-foot Uwajimaya Village complex resulted in demonstrations from some community members because of the resulting closure of historic Lane Street. A grassroots campaign called “Save Lane Street” argued that the project’s EIS was inadequate, that the time allowed for comment on the project was too short, and that the scale of the project would cause traffic and hurt existing businesses. Uwajimaya Village was built in 2000 following approval by the City Council.
And in 2006, International District residents protested against the “Dearborn Project,” a plan that would have built 600,000 square feet of retail space and 400 residential units between South Dearborn and Weller Streets. Much of the ire for the project was directed at the potential traffic that would clog up Little Saigon. Others said the $300 million project threatened the neighborhood’s cultural identity.
Quang Nguyen was a vocal opponent to the Dearborn Street project. At the time, he said he was seeking a way for the project to be beneficial to the community—pointing to Little Saigon’s need for a Vietnamese cultural center, a retirement complex, or a park.
Ultimately, the Dearborn Project did not come to fruition due to the hardships faced during recession later in the decade.
When recently asked about whether the International District was ready for a national business today, Ngyuen said it really would depend on the type of business—if it was something the neighborhood needed, like a drug store.
“I think that any type of retail or business that doesn’t drastically change the identity of the neighborhood would be welcome,” Ngyuen said.
Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA), said the current economic situation has opened the door for national businesses.
“The Chinatown-International District currently has a higher-than-average retail vacancy rate, so there is a lot of opportunity for new businesses, both local and from outside of Seattle, to put down roots in this neighborhood,” Blakeney said.
National businesses set up shop when local businesses reveal an area’s potential, Blakeney explained.
“The truth is that national chains follow the local buzz,” Blakeney said. “Take Ballard or Capitol Hill for instance. It wasn’t the national chains that led the economic revitalization of Ballard Avenue, or Pike, and Pine.”
Blakeney also reminds us that the Chinatown-International District itself is home to several national chains.
“Uwajimaya is now in Oregon, and we have Kinokuniya Books, Beard Papa, Starbucks, Specialty’s Cafe and Bakery, and Tully’s Coffee, which are all chains,” Blakeney said.
Doug Chin, a longtime activist and author, said it is possible today for a national business to call the International District home—if that business meets certain guidelines.
“Given the depressed conditions of the retail in the district, I think that people will generally welcome a new business into the area,” Chin said, “unless it would displace small businesses, does not comply with the zoning laws and International District Special Review District Guidelines, or have a significantly negative impact on the Asian American character of the neighborhood.”
Last month in Los Angeles, thousands marched in protest of a Walmart scheduled to open at the edge of its Chinatown in 2013. The reasons protesters cited were political and focused on Walmart’s labor practices. Whether Seattle’s International District welcomes or resists a new national neighbor will have to fall on the judgement of its property owners.
Koh said that property owners in the International District have to select tenants on a case by case basis and consider things like name recognition and business diversity.
“We believe Uwajimaya has very good name recognition, while others don’t,” Koh said.
Koh Family, LLC has spent about two years trying to find the right tenants for its Milwaukee Building and for the neighborhood.
“We would not want one of our tenants competing against another tenant for the same product,” Koh said. “We want the neighborhood to be successful by having a diversity of businesses.”