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Group envisions a downtown look for Little Saigon

A proposal calls for transforming the district with hotels, high-end restaurants and lofts.

November 15, 2007|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

Imagine what would happen if New York City-style development came to the heart of Orange County's Little Saigon, now a jumble of mom-and-pop shops in mostly old strip malls.

Lofts would sit atop high-end stores. People would lounge at outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The area would have hotels and a sculpture garden. And the street of old newspaper and TV offices would become the "Vietnamese American Times Square," complete with plasma screens and electronic headline news signs.

That's the ambitious vision put forth by a group of land-use experts to transform the area, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country. Little Saigon has not lived up to its potential as a tourist spot, the group says, and it's going to take a lot of money, cooperation and faith to get it to the next level.

On Wednesday a panel from the Urban Land Institute, a national nonprofit research and education organization, presented its recommendations to the Westminster City Council. The panel spent three days studying the area in October.

Community leaders have long worried that the three square miles that make up the district would slowly decline as the second and third generations of Vietnamese families moved away. The study is the first hard look that local government leaders have taken at the entire area since it emerged more than 30 years ago when Vietnamese refugees set up businesses amid the strawberry fields and used-car lots along Bolsa Avenue.

Since then, Little Saigon has morphed into the capital of Vietnamese Americans. Primarily located in Westminster, the district spills over into Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.

Bolsa Avenue, the main drag, is filled with an unremarkable array of small Vietnamese-owned stores, some in deteriorating strip malls. Nothing about the stretch of road, save the Vietnamese signs, sets it apart from any other tired-out street in central Orange County. And that needs to change, the land-use panel said.

Little Saigon has a lot of untapped potential, said Kevin Lawler, chairman of the panel and a managing partner of a development company. The area should take on more of a big-city downtown feel, the institute said. Apartments should be stacked on top of stores; there should be an Asian-themed food market with outdoor produce and a public plaza on Bolsa Avenue. Add in hotels, a conference center, art galleries and theaters.

The result would be something the panel dubbed "Downtown Saigon USA," an area so grand it would be the mother of all other Vietnamese enclaves in the nation, Lawler said.

The ambitious plan isn't without its challenges, the panel acknowledged. Little vacant land is left in the district, except for a large mobile home park near Asian Garden Mall. City money for redevelopment is scarce. Westminster would also have to win the support of the bedroom communities that surround Little Saigon.

City officials will decide which parts of the institute's study to keep, weighing community support and whether Westminster's economy will support the ideas, said Westminster City Manager Ray Silver.

Little Saigon is already one step ahead of the panel's recommendations: Frank Jao, a Vietnamese American developer who created Asian Garden Mall, plans to spend about $20 million to turn the parking spaces in front of the mall into a public plaza, with fountains and an entertainment area.

He hopes the institute's vision inspires entrepreneurs and business owners to pump life back into the area, whose residents have yearned for a new look for years.

"The community is always looking for change," Jao said. "It's very encouraging that the city will help the community reach the growth that it deserves."

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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