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We are publishing this story in English and Vietnamese. To read the story in Vietnamese, please click here. Translation by Anh Nguyen.
Victor Nguyen-Long, 43, spends a Wednesday in February doing what he’s devoted much of his time to lately: meeting Eden Center’s business owners. Nguyen-Long and his partner, Denise Nguyen, 36, have been talking with dozens of owners and workers at the Falls Church strip mall for months.
Nguyen-Long and Nguyen are part of Viet Place Collective, a grassroots group working to ensure the future of the Vietnamese commercial hub in light of a small area plan proposed by the city of Falls Church. Other members, of no relation to each other, include Jenn Tran, Jess Nguyen, Amanda Luo, Ha Nguyen, Binh Ly, a 32-year-old city planner, and Quynh Nguyen, a 25-year-old digital organizer for the local nonprofit Hamkae Center.
“All of us grew up in the area and Eden Center is a place near and dear to us,” Nguyen-Long says. “We have an opportunity here to invest time to understand the complexities while unpacking our own identities and what this place means to us now.”
That opportunity was presented in November 2021 by a Falls Church City small area plan, which “defines a vision for redevelopment” that “is sensitive to the area’s history and responds to the current and future needs of the City’s residents, workers, and visitors.” The plan encompassing Eden Center and Seven Corners, dubbed the East End, is part of the city’s adopted Comprehensive Plan, state-required guidance for development and investment in Falls Church. The East End plan is the last in a series of seven area plans developed over a decade.
Eden Center began its transformation into a cultural hub in 1984, when Vietnamese business owners displaced from a “Little Saigon” enclave in Clarendon opened up shop. The strip mall has rapidly become a gathering space for the local Vietnamese community and the No. 1 tourist destination in Falls Church, with people driving from all over to visit. But to many of its regulars, the future of Eden Center could be in question.
The origin of Viet Place Collective
Quynh Nguyen was among the first to start organizing and informing tenants at Eden Center about the plan. They heard a rumor about the mall being torn down before discovering the small area plan through coworkers and were concerned that business owners had only heard the rumor.
So Quynh went door-to-door with friends in January 2022 to speak with business owners; some were hesitant, some didn’t know about the plan, and others weren’t concerned because Alan Frank, senior vice president and general counsel of Eden Center, had sent a statement refuting rumors of demolition.
Capital Commercial Properties has owned Eden Center since the 1960s, and will do “whatever it takes to keep it going,” vice president and associate general counsel Graham Eddy says. “Eden Center is going nowhere.”
The next step was background research on the history of Eden Center, Quynh says, which started with connecting with Ly, who had collected oral histories of residents who worked at and frequented Little Saigon as part of a 2014 project by students in Virginia Tech’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning. The group also researched the economic impact of Eden Center and an unsuccessful 2012 lawsuit tenants brought against Capital Commercial Properties over conditions at the mall.
Quynh says they felt the city hadn’t sufficiently notified community members about a community meeting in March 2022 following the initial kickoff in November 2021.
“It was obvious to us that if you have a plan that says it wants to celebrate Vietnamese culture and centers Eden Center, then you should actively include business owners in that, but they didn’t,” Quynh says.
The Planning Commission moved the meeting to November 2022 due to staffing shortages, City of Falls Church communications director Susan Finarelli says. Before the meeting, Quynh Nguyen decided to distribute fliers in Vietnamese at Eden Center after asking the commission for 50 copies. Finarelli notes the commission felt there wasn’t enough notice, however, so a public listening session was added on Jan. 18, the first to include an open public comment forum.
But there was still more to be done, so Viet Place Collective was named and grew in staff: Ly, Nguyen-Long, and Denise Nguyen all joined. Since then, the group has used Instagram to disseminate a community survey and encourage followers to attend the public listening session. The meeting turnout was “incredibly satisfying that all of our efforts amounted to something,” Quynh Nguyen says.
Among those interested in helping are videographers Cham Keat and Diana Nguyen, the content creators behind Hypefoodies. The couple, who both grew up visiting Eden Center and had their first date at hot spot Rice Paper, say they hope to amplify the group’s work to preserve the vibrant center.
The collective has since grown even larger, hosting volunteer orientations and raising funds for organizational costs, and is now working with the planning commission to meet their demands, primarily a paid, Vietnamese-speaking outreach specialist.
What’s in the small area plan
The Falls Church City Planning Commission, appointed by elected members of the City Council, has been charged with drafting the East End area plan. Jim Snyder, director of community planning services and economic development, and Paul Stoddard, the city’s planning director, oversee the city’s planning efforts, and they emphasize the small area plan should be viewed as a reinvestment plan, not a redevelopment plan.
“Eden Center is one of the area’s strengths. We’re not looking to redevelop, we’re looking to revitalize and preserve,” Snyder says. “It hasn’t had much love from the city in terms of investment or connectivity.”
Small area plans are meant to have an overarching vision that breaks down into functional needs, like transportation investments or regulatory barriers, Stoddard says. But adoption of the plan doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee as is—it’s more of a formality to get access to public funding.
That funding could be for upgrading sidewalks and crosswalks on Wilson Boulevard, a road long considered dangerous by owners and patrons. The commission is prioritizing that concern, Stoddard says, but the process can take nearly a decade: The grant application period for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority opens every two years, approved funds could take four years to receive, engineering can take a year, and construction another two.
“We’re retrofitting a suburban community to a walkable community,” Stoddard says. “It was developed auto first, people second and we’re trying to change that.”
Eden Center shop owners are cautious, but optimistic
One Eden Center business owner, who asked to remain anonymous, is hopeful the plan will include needed reinvestment like road safety and better parking options, but also feels worried about how it will affect small businesses.
“I want change for the better, but I don’t want big changes that affect struggling businesses,” the owner says. The center “needs a young energy,” he adds, but any changes should help the current businesses.
Frank, the landlord, has emailed business owners to reassure them they won’t push out small businesses, but some tenants still struggle to understand the situation because of a language barrier. A Vietnamese-speaking specialist should sit down with every shop owner to “address the worry we have,” the owner says.
Vinh, owner of Tinh Han Jewelers who identified herself by first name, is not worried about the plan after Frank’s reassurance, and she welcomes new nearby businesses that will improve foot traffic. She hopes the commission will hear concerns about traffic safety. She says she would address those concerns at on-site meetings, but only if they are held outside of her store hours.
But city government officials should come to the business owners, Quang Le, owner of Huong Binh Bakery, says, and only then will they speak up for what they want. There haven’t been enough opportunities for tenants too busy running businesses to tune in or submit concerns online, Le, whose family business has operated in the center for more than 30 years, says.
As for any reinvestment or changes to Eden Center, he would like the city to consider setting up a recycling program at the mall, but is concerned about how mixed-use development may impact the current businesses.
“Whatever they can do to make the center cleaner, brighter, and safer, but mixed development is not a good idea,” Le says. “If businesses are told to shut down, most likely the owners and employees will go away. Once you break up the band, it’s hard to bring it back together.”
Other community concerns about the plan
But many are concerned that the plan focuses on the physical building but doesn’t prioritize the Vietnamese community at Eden Center.
“What we saw missing from this plan is what makes Eden Center Eden Center: the businesses, community, and people,” Ly says. The plan is an opportunity for the city to use a racial and social equity lens, Ly says, adding: “We deserve what every other American deserves: a seat at the table, and an acknowledgment of our contributions to the community.”
Nguyen-Long points to the language Capital Commercial Properties uses when promising Eden Center won’t go anywhere; keeping the famous gate and Vietnamese characters on the building but pushing out small businesses means nothing. Quynh adds that mixed-use development around the center may lead to businesses getting torn down, a pattern of historical displacement of communities of color in the U.S.
Activists aren’t against development or investment in Eden Center, though, as long as it prioritizes Vietnamese businesses. Content specialist Vina Sananikone says updates to the building’s infrastructure and parking lot would be appreciated, but she hopes Vietnamese entrepreneurs aren’t pushed out in the long term.
“We want to preserve businesses and make it better for them, but we also want to secure the legacy for what it’s going to be,” says Sananikone, who attended the Jan. 18 public listening session.
Sananikone wants a well-suited community center for gathering, and Ly agrees: He wishes for a better space for his parents to commemorate the fall of Saigon each year than the parking lot.
Others say the commission hasn’t engaged with community members enough to shape the plan according to their concerns, including longtime resident Charlie Lord. Lord says the process for plan writing, including community meetings not on-site, accounts for only engaged citizens to get involved.
Lord, who grew up frequenting Eden Center, says the commission’s lack of engagement could lead to a plan that doesn’t match community needs and the loss of small businesses.
“The city should recognize what a rare jewel it has, and make it a responsibility to be caretakers of that space,” Lord says. “Places like this enrich the culture for everyone who lives around there, and it would be a real shame for places catered to immigrant communities to be pushed out.”
In response to the call for more engagement, the commission has delayed the planning process to host four pop-up events with an interpreter at Eden Center on March 18 and April 22 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and March 22 and 29 from 1 to 5 p.m. according to senior planner Emily Bazemore. Each event will focus on a theme, like the significance of Eden Center and desired improvements, before sharing the revised plan in the final week.
But if more time is needed to speak to all the owners, Vice Mayor Letty Hardi says she wants to extend the engagement process. She also says she understands concerns about displacement of small businesses as a first generation Asian American whose family owned Fortune Restaurant, a now-shuttered Chinese eatery near Seven Corners.
The commission is moving forward with hiring a Vietnamese outreach specialist, Hardi says, and exploring options for how the city government can assist in efforts to combat displacement, like providing tenant protections, designating the site for heritage tourism, or offering legacy business grants.
Eddy, however, says the concerns about the plan are a nonstory. The plan includes incentives for landowners to have more flexibility in the future, but redevelopment at Eden Center is not going to happen, he says.
Concerns about Eden Center disappearing surface every few months, Eddy says, but Capital Commercial Properties has every intention of investing in the mall and its future, citing a new food hall that will open in the former Cho Eden Supermarket as an example. Displacement caused by the plan “isn’t an issue” because the company wants to keep the center thriving forever, he adds.
“We feel fortunate that the Vietnamese community has chosen Eden Center, and we feel a responsibility to steward that and keep that relationship,” Eddy says.
Associate general counsel Lindsay Thompson adds: “This isn’t just a commercial shopping center with tenants coming out every few years, this is a community. Ownership values that and has no interest in changing that.”
History may repeat itself
Previous Eden Center business owners are also concerned about the fate of Vietnamese-owned businesses. Khiet Dang, 76, operated Thế Hệ bookstore in Eden Center for more than 20 years. Now retired, Dang says he had to continue teaching at Wakefield High School in Arlington while he owned the shop in order to afford the rent, which rose to nearly 10 times the original price by the time he closed.
Dang saw many changes at the mall, such as two expansions titled Saigon West and Saigon Gardens, an added clock tower imitating Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City, street signs bearing names of fallen Republic of Vietnam soldiers, and the former South Vietnam flag flying.
Older community members, including retired activists like Nguyen-Long and Ly’s mothers, are concerned they’ll see businesses disappear again after Vietnamese refugees were displaced from Little Saigon when the Clarendon Metro stop opened and drove up prices. Trương Anh Thụy, Nguyen-Long’s mother, witnessed her friends close their department and jewelry stores and now she’s worried that may happen again.
“If the people at Eden Center move again, it will be a disaster. They have nowhere to go,” Trương says.
Initially, Trương was surprised to hear of the plan, but it became evident at the November 2022 meeting the commission hadn’t listened to the Vietnamese community yet. The engagement meetings are needed, Trương says, though she’s unsure if she’d attend.
Trương, 86, helped found in 1990 the Falls Church headquarters for Boat People SOS, a nonprofit for Vietnamese refugees that initially operated out of San Diego. Dang and Trương say they’re impressed and grateful the younger generation is continuing their work when they can’t. Still, Trương is planning on organizing her friends to push for the commission to protect the Eden Center owners.