Community members participate in a pop-up listening session at Eden Center in Falls Church Virginia
Community members participate in one of the pop-up events planners held at Eden Center Credit: Peter Tran

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Before activists from the Viet Place Collective met with City of Falls Church planners on April 28 to discuss the city’s revised small area plan, Binh Ly, a member of the collective, told Eden Center business owner Suong Nguyen he felt hopeful the city would listen to their suggestions and demands.

Ly says Suong Nguyen, the co-owner of Bánh Cuốn Saigon, was excited to hear their hard work had efficacy. 

“It was heartening to hear a little bit of excitement in her voice,” Ly says. “It’s really painful to see [business owners] be kind of jaded and that’s where I hope that my work and the work of VPC can revive a sense of hope in the system, a sense of belief in the system that it works for them, too.”

Ly and Nguyen were waiting to see which of their concerns would be addressed in the updated small area plan for the area surrounding Eden Center, a shopping center of predominantly Vietnamese businesses, in the City of Falls Church. On April 27, the city planning commission released its revised plan following four pop-up events online, along with outreach with business owners at the mall facilitated by Viet Place Collective, a group of local advocates.

The revised plan now includes suggestions to officially name the area Little Saigon and hang officially branded and bilingual banners around the area, and rename the portion of Wilson Boulevard in Falls Church as Saigon Boulevard, demands included in an executive summary Viet Place Collective sent. Additionally, city planning staff have recommended addressing concerns about anti-displacement, parking availability, traffic safety on Wilson Boulevard, and events space. The city unveiled its first iteration of the East End small area plan, part of the city’s state-required Comprehensive Plan, in November 2021.

Other business owners also feel the city heard their concerns this time around after reading the revised plan, including Quang Le, the general manager of Huong Binh Bakery. Le previously hoped to attend the pop-ups at Eden Center but was unable to due to a busy schedule.

“I do think the city is a little more aware now that people spoke up,” Le says. “With the feedback from the community, [Viet Place Collective], the mobilization, I feel like we’ve been heard. … Naming it Little Saigon, that’s helpful recognition. I wasn’t sure the city recognized what they had at Eden Center.”

The revisions that include naming the area Little Saigon, recycling and composting programs, increasing parking, a boutique hotel, and more efficient energy plans, such a green roof, are promising, Le says. But he says there are some adjustments that could be made long-term, like more recognition and promotion of Eden Center and its events as a tourist attraction. 

Le also worries that the plan is just a big wish list that could mean high costs.

“As a business owner, I’m just a little bit wary of all this great stuff they want to do, and want the owners at Eden Center to do. I’m worried about that because ultimately it becomes operating costs which then becomes a burden for businesses,” he says.

Ly points out a few demands missing from the revised plan that could help owners protect and keep their businesses in the future. The collective included in their list of demands a plan to fund anti-displacement programs using revenue generated by local sales and meal taxes Eden Center businesses pay, and a legally binding document, such as a community benefits agreement, which would define benefits the community would receive in return for supporting any developers’ project.

Viet Place Collective, a group of volunteers informing the public about Eden Center’s future while working with the city government to ensure it, has connected with more than 50 business owners, including Le, since November 2022. Following a Jan. 18 meeting of the planning commission, the activists publicized demands for a paid Vietnamese-speaking outreach specialist, more on-site community engagement with businesses, and a commitment to anti-displacement strategies. The city then postponed the finalization of the small area plan until a series of four pop-up events at Eden Center occurred.

On March 18, 22, 29, and April 22, senior planner Emily Bazemore and city planners Zoe Larive and Cameron Gahres set up a table by the fountain in Eden Center where they engaged passersby to explain the plan and answer questions, offered anonymous comment cards to be filled out, manned posters for others to write thoughts, and handed out city merchandise and candy. 

The goal of the pop-ups was to get more community input on what improvements the city government should attempt to make at Eden Center, and, more specifically, within the small area plan. The planning staff also listened to various thoughts and concerns about the ensured importance of Eden Center, prompted by two posters they hung up asking passersby to write down what Eden Center means to them and what they would like changed at the mall. 

Bazemore says the pop-ups were a positive experience, providing plenty of feedback that the planners then incorporated into the plan as an aspirational future. Larive points to image boards placed at the final pop-up to show that the planners have researched other Vietnamese hot spots throughout the U.S., such as Little Saigon in Seattle. 

Among those visuals was a night market and public art display on the parking lot, both serving as flexible community spaces for celebrations and memorials, and for drawing in more customers for the businesses, Larive says. But she carefully stipulates that the plan is not a done deal, but rather a list of recommendations for the area’s future.

“We can with the right partners get this done but we don’t want to be giving false hopes,” Larive says. “The nature of small area plans is that it’s a wish list and nothing immediately gets done. The [Little Saigon] signage … shows the city supports this area and it is part of the city. We’re lucky enough it’s part of our grounds.”

The demand for an outreach specialist has yet to be met, with Bazemore noting that the recommendation is included in the revised plan, and at three of the four events, an interpreter was on standby to help translate for passersby and the commissioners. Still, Viet Place Collective members, among them Denise Nguyen, would step in most times to help explain the plan in Vietnamese. 

And while that extra work may be frustrating when it falls on the activists, they still feel a responsibility and are happy to help how they can, Ly says. At the first and last pop-up event, Ly attended with his mother, Kim-Ha Ly, an organizer who also helped translate. 

Ly notes that while Fall Church Vice Mayor Letty Hardi in the past supported the planning commission delaying a final plan to account for more community engagement, the commissioners still moved ahead to propose a revised plan. Speaking to passersby, likely mostly patrons, from a table wasn’t enough, so Binh Ly led Bazemore to various business owners throughout Eden Center, including Suong Nguyen, because her business has been at the center since 1989, shortly after it began to become a hub.

Suong Nguyen was part of a group of business owners that sued the mall’s property management company, Capital Commercial Properties, in 2012 over poor conditions, including the integrity of her restaurant’s roof. (While discussing the suit with a Washington Post reporter, a portion of the ceiling collapsed.) Since then, conditions have only marginally improved, and Nguyen says she is wary of the promise that the city will help the businesses at Eden Center.

“I hope they can help us, but I don’t trust them anymore,” Suong Nguyen says, adding that to get business owners’ trust, the city officials should “get some people to speak Vietnamese and contact us to try to understand what’s a difficult situation, and what we need to have. … This mall is not a mall, it’s a home for a lot of people, for the Vietnamese community.” 

Suong Nguyen was so worried about the plan that she couldn’t sleep the night before the final pop-up. She says she understood the gravity of the situation after speaking with collective members because the landlord had previously assured business owners that the plan wouldn’t impact them. Now, she’s concerned the plan will cause businesses to close and be driven out again, as happened in the displacement of the former Little Saigon in Arlington.

Addressing concerns about parking and safety inside the mall, especially with recent robberies, are priorities for Suong Nguyen. Most business owners are concerned about the parking situation since the majority of their customers drive; Hùng Hoàng, the owner of Hoàng Thơ II barbershop, hopes the city will address the need for better parking options, as well as enforce, where they can, issues of cleanliness and upkeep at the mall.

However, Hoàng, who has worked at the barbershop since the beginning of Eden Center in 1984 and inherited it from his father, is worried that the plan will change too much at the mall.

“If we don’t have Eden Center, where do we go? We have nowhere to go,” Hoàng says. “Vietnamese people want to come visit D.C. so they can come here. When they need something to remember or are homesick, they come here.” 

Though the pop-ups and direct outreach were a step in the right direction, some business owners still are in the dark about the plan, and activists like Binh Ly think there’s room for more engagement, which came a little too late. 

“If you go on the website for the East End small area plan, you’ll see a list of engagements, and you can see engagement of the Vietnamese community is at the end. Visually every time I see that, it’s an afterthought,” Ly says.

Still, Kim-Ha Ly is hopeful the pop-ups will lead to more meaningful and frequent communication between the Vietnamese community and the City of Falls Church. She hopes to see city officials pay more attention to the business owners in the future as a way to connect a “powerful bridge” between the two.