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Unease in Chinatown As Santa Monica Developer Sweeps Up Shopping Spaces For Asian Immigrants

An exterior photo of Dynasty Center in LA's Chinatown. Red Chinese characters spell out its name about the English version in blue letters.
Tenants such as Loc Phan, right, are afraid they'll have to leave Dynasty Center now that a Santa Monica developer has bought the property.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Loc Phan and his wife, Lee, have had to move their women’s clothing boutique in Chinatown twice because of the same developer. And now they’re afraid it’ll happen again.

This summer, Santa Monica-based Redcar Properties bought Dynasty Center, easily Chinatown’s largest indoor shopping space, at nearly 80,000 square feet.

It’s where the Phans set up their racks of bright dresses and tunics in 2019, after being forced out of The Shop, another indoor plaza that Redcar is redeveloping. Before The Shop, the Phans worked out of the Chinatown Swap Meet building, also bought by Redcar and converted into architectural office space.

“We’ll have to wait. I don’t know what happens now,” said Phan, who describes a rapidly-gentrifying Chinatown bereft of any more affordable commercial spaces.

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His wife walks outside the shop and gestures up and down North Spring Street where all three plazas are lined up in a row, as a train pulls into the light rail station in the near distance.

“Every building they buy, we have to go out,” she said of Redcar, which has converted other Spring Street properties such as a former space for the Cambodia Ethnic Chinese Association and a beauty supply company.

A screenshot of a 837 N. Spring St. when it was the Chinatown Swap Meet.  Pedestrians walk by a off-white building with green awnings and signs in English and Chinese.
Image of 837 N. Spring St. when it was the Chinatown Swap Meet.
(Google maps)
Street scene outside a modern-looking brick office building.
A screenshot of a 837 N. Spring St. after it was redeveloped into office space.

Gentrification battles have been a fixture in Chinatown for decades, but the potential loss of a community space as massive and enduring as Dynasty Center is creating waves of alarm.

On Friday, community activists and residents rallied outside the building’s back entrance in support of dozens of shop owners who fear eviction is coming. Redcar has not issued eviction notices, but some tenants report being told verbally that they’ll have to move over the next two years.

Charlotte Nguyen of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development helps lead a rally in support of shopkeepers and customers at Dynasty Center.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Charlotte Nguyen, a volunteer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, said she grew up going with her Vietnamese refugee family to Dynasty Center, walking through a maze of stalls lined with affordable household wares and clothing.

"Sure enough, I'd would always come home with a new toy or dress or pack of Pokemon cards," Nguyen said. "It didn't matter if we were actually rich or poor. At Dynasty Center, I always felt like we had enough."

Nguyen's heart sank when Redcar bought Dynasty Center from a family in July for $29.5 million.

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“I've watched as greedy landlords neglect our homes and businesses and hand them over to outside developers with no commitment to our community,” Nguyen said. “I’ve seen the loss of local stores and familiar faces on our streets, all in the pursuit of profits, none of which ever make it back to us to ensure we are housed, fed and can thrive.”

Under previous ownership, some of the tenants were told they only had to pay 50% of their rent because of the pandemic. Since the property turnover to Redcar, tenants are back to paying in full, confirmed Redcar property manager Song Jackson.

Shoppers can buy red envelopes at Dynasty Center. Community members point to Dynasty Center as a bulwark of Chinatown culture.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Community activists have started a petition, demanding that rent is reduced back down to 50% and that no one is evicted.

Approached in her Chinatown office on Broadway, Jackson said that there are no plans to evict tenants nor had she told any tenants they’ll have to leave.

“We — so far — we're not planning,” Jackson said. “So some tenants [are] maybe just assuming.”

When asked whether Redcar planned to redevelop Dynasty Center, another individual in the office, identifying himself only as a co-property manager, interjected: "We don’t have enough info to comment on that.”

But tenant Tola Long said it was Jackson who gave her the heads-up that stalls such as hers, where she sells luggage and handbags, would have to close by 2023. Long said that Jackson encouraged her not to stock up on wares. So she listened.

“I go downtown, buy some stuff," Long said. "Little by little, week-by-week only.”

Tola Long chats with Sophat Phea, a volunteer with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development at her shop.
(Alborz Kamalizad

But Long said she isn’t waiting to find out what happens at Dynasty Center. After 10 years of operation, she plans to close up shop and go work for a relative, a cell phone case wholesaler downtown.

The pandemic has helped to shutter some other shops already. Redcar's purchase of Dynasty Center feels like another big blow, said Ivy Thi, who's worked at the family's clothing stall for 20 years. She said just the spectre of evictions and closures has scared off business.

Ivy Thi has worked at the family clothing shop at Dynasty Center for 20 years. She said she doesn't know where she would work if they were forced to move.
(Alborz Kamalizad

"A lot of people are just thinking that these stores aren't going to exist anymore," said in Vietnamese through an interpreter. "People have told me, 'Oh, like once you move, let me know what you're going to be."

The problem is, Thi said, she has nowhere to go.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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