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Filling an Ethnic Void

Tan International Group expects its newest grocery-anchored shopping center in Austin to tap a rapidly growing demographic sector in this capital city — Asian shoppers. The 180,000 sq. ft. Chinatown Center, nearing completion in North Austin, reflects traditional Chinese architecture in its rooflines and in a large gate at the project's entrance.

Although the grand opening will be Sept. 30, several specialty shops are open and more are ready to move in as soon as Austin-based Tan International completes the space. Every tenant is either Asian-themed or caters to one or more Asian cultural groups, from the eight restaurants to the small shops selling everything from clothing to cell phones.

“The new Chinatown Center will create more than 300 jobs,” says Alexander Tan, chairman of Tan International. Tan began planning the project with an anchor tenant already in tow. His father-in-law, Tom Lee, owns the My Thanh Oriental Market, which reopened in 68,000 sq. ft. at the heart of the new Chinatown Center on July 1. The store previously occupied 15,000 sq. ft. in a building about a mile to the south.

Tan picked the 30-acre site after the firm's research showed 30,000 Asians lived within a five-mile radius of the property, which is on North Lamar Boulevard, west of Interstate 35 and about 10 miles north of downtown Austin. By the time the project was ready to break ground in early 2005, Tan had users tentatively committed to fill the project.

Austin's Asian population doubled from 15,000 to more than 30,000 between 1990 and 2000, according to Ryan Robinson, demographer for the City of Austin. That includes equally large groups of residents who designate themselves as Vietnamese, Chinese or Indian, with smaller but significant numbers of Korean and Filipino households.

Asians make up 4.7% of Austin's population, and are expected to become 7%, or 55,000 people, by 2010, Robinson says. “There certainly is a concentration of Asian households in North Austin, and the North Lamar corridor is the spine.”

Austin is chiefly experiencing step migration, which refers to migration from other U.S. cities rather than from overseas. For example, many of Austin's Vietnamese residents moved there from Houston or Los Angeles, Robinson says.

Similar growth may be occurring in a handful of cities around the country. Many of the factors attracting Asian families to Austin are identical to those attracting new businesses and investments, and include a low cost of living, good schools and strong job market, particularly in the technology sector.

Chinatown Center's specialized food offerings pose little threat to non-Asian grocery stores in the area, according to retail specialist Sherry Sanchez of NAI Commercial Industrial Properties Co. in Austin. The stores in the center will provide a resource for local residents who previously sought certain foods and merchandise in other cities.

“It was the same way for Austin's Latino community years ago,” Sanchez says. “Before Fiesta opened a store here, people had to drive to San Antonio or the Rio Grande Valley for specialty ingredients and spices.”

Chinatown Center's opening is well-timed, says Robinson, the city demographer. “They're going to be able to serve a very large and growing nearby Asian population, and they're also going to serve a non-Asian market, taking advantage of increased interest and increased popularity in Asian cuisine in general.”

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