Pho Bo’s Proposed Demolishment for Luxury Apartments Raises Community Concerns

by Ronnie Estoque

Seattle resident Achil Obenza regards Pho Bo in Columbia City as her go-to spot for Vietnamese cuisine. In fact, when her newborn daughter was merely 3 days old, she brought her there alongside her husband for their first family outing. Now the restaurant space is under the threat of being demolished to make way for 71 luxury apartments by a company referred to in the design review documentation as CP Rainier LLC. Construction is projected to begin in spring of 2021 once the design review process is finalized by the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections.

“It’s saddening. It doesn’t come as a surprise because that seems to be the pattern of what’s going on,” Obenza said. “Small, family-owned businesses being demolished and replaced by human storage.”

CP Rainier LLC was registered in Washington State under Eric Cyzner on April 18, 2016. According to their website, Cyzner Properties is one of central New Jersey’s most respected and diversified private commercial real estate companies. CP Rainier LLC purchased the Pho Bo building from Rainier and Angeline LLC in February of 2019 for $2.95 million. Online King County tax records show that the mailing address for CP Rainier LLC is 192 Route 22 W Greenbrook, NJ 08812, which is the address of Cyzner Properties.

According to Cyzner, the redevelopment process will take approximately two years to complete full construction of the proposed space, which would inevitably displace Pho Bo’s ownership out of a restaurant space in that time frame. Cyzner also stated through a phone interview that each apartment will be market-driven and that a general contractor has not yet been determined by his company. Studio Meng Strazzara have been chosen as the architects for the project. 

According to Bryan Stevens, Director of Media Relations & Permit Coordination at the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections, CP Rainier LLC has elected to pay into Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) fund, which helps fund affordable housing across the city as opposed to directly providing affordable housing units. An exact amount required for CP Rainier LLC’s MHA contribution has not been finalized as the Master Use Permit for the proposal is still under review. But this fund does little to address the concerns of longtime community businesses displaced by new apartment developments.

On Sept. 13, Eric Higbee, Principal Landscape Architect at Convene, submitted a public comment to the local city about Project 3036647-LU, which is the project name for Pho Bo’s redevelopment. Higbee elaborated further on his public comment via email with the Emerald

“Minority and local ownership of property is really important,” Higbee said. “Outside developers are usually motivated to maximize profit over doing what is best for the community.” 

Higbee also believes it is unfortunate that immigrant and small business owners often take the biggest hits as the city increases in density. Community members such as Obenza believe that Pho Bo’s restaurant space should remain as is due to its cultural impact on the community, and that if development does push thorough, CP Rainier LLC must offer subsidized retail space to Pho Bo owners. 

“These developers are taking advantage of the situation because of the warmth that is built by the little businesses. It becomes an attractive area; developers see this, get wind of it, and then basically end up destroying it,” Obenza said. 

Obenza believes that small, local-immigrant owned businesses have also been largely negatively impacted due to COVID-19 and that the community should rally and support establishments that are not able to typically serve at full capacity. 

Cyzner, the developer whose father started his company over 40 years ago, says, “We talked to the Pho Bo owners and told them that there is a space available to them if they want to come back after redevelopment is finished. We’re happy to offer some subsidized rent and try to get them back there.”

Cynthia Brothers, the founder of Vanishing Seattle, a social media account that documents the displacement of businesses and people across the city due to gentrification, believes that developers from outside the area might not care about the integrity of existing communities because they’re less likely to have a personal connection. 

“In the case of Pho Bo, you have this POC business that’s been there for years that’s getting displaced,” Brothers said. “Even if there was an offer formally or informally on the table that they [Pho Bo] could come back, are they able to afford to rent, is the new space appropriate or desirable for them?”

Brothers believes that retail space offered by developers such as CP Rainier LLC often cater to upscale businesses and that there is less incentive for developers to offer space at subsidized rates to local, immigrant-owned businesses. 

Pho Bo resides in King County’s District 2, which is represented by Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. He believes that city and county governments have failed to protect small businesses and low-income residents from the negative impacts of gentrification. 

“We have to do a better job of promoting community ownership of land and commercial spaces and enacting strong anti-displacement measures,” Zahilay said. “Otherwise, unchecked development will continue to push out marginalized communities that have called places like South Seattle home for generations.”

Like other cities across the United States, Seattle has a deep history of red lining that had a severe impact on South Seattle and Central District communities. As these neighborhoods gentrify, locally owned immigrant businesses such as Pho Bo face a harsh reality of losing their commercial space to continue to operate their businesses.

Cranes and construction have become a common sight in South Seattle and the Central District, with their noise silencing an often-untold story of countless Black and Brown community members that have been displaced out of these neighborhoods due to gentrification and skyrocketing rent prices. 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the 98118-zip code was deemed one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. As this year’s census wraps up, it will be interesting to see how the racial and ethnic demographics of the neighborhood have drastically shifted since then; and the ways in which data cannot illustrate the challenges that local businesses like Pho Bo experience. 

“Local, state, and federal leaders must step up right now to protect our small businesses and ensure their owners can thrive and stay housed in their neighborhoods for as long as they choose,” Zahilay said.

Pho Bo ownership declined to make a public comment to the Emerald on CP Rainier LLC’s proposal for redevelopment. 

Ronnie Estoque is a Seattle-based writer.

Featured image by Ronnie Estoque

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