The sudden bankruptcy in November of the National Wholesale Liquidators chain has left the owner of its leased Falls Church property in the Eden Center mulling “highest and best use” options for the redevelopment of the 77,120-square foot site.
It could involve a multi-story mixed use project with a few levels of parking to help allay the existing parking pressures at the wildly popular Vietnamese-American 13.5-acre Eden Center destination, said Alan B. Frank, general counsel and senior vice-president for the Eden Center’s owner, Capital Commercial Properties. His comments came at a meeting of the Falls Church Economic Development Authority Tuesday.
But in the current economic environment, nothing it is going to happen anytime soon, he said, noting that the building, which has housed Zayre and Ames department stores in the past, will sit empty for at least the next six months.
Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, learning of Frank’s comments Tuesday, told the News-Press yesterday that she’d be very interested in pursuing a “highest and best use” approach to the site, in hopes of optimizing revenue generation to the City, noting that “thinking outside the box” might be a good approach.
The site is within one block of where the new BJ’s Warehouse is now slated to be constructed just inside the Falls Church city limits on Wilson Blvd., and is not immediately contiguous to any residential neighborhood in the City.
Frank said that the National Warehouse Liquidators had a lease on the property running through 2016, and that their bankruptcy came as a total surprise, presenting his company, run by Florida-based shopping center developer Norm Ebenstein, with what Frank called “a tremendous opportunity, although the timing, given the economy, is not the best.”
Frank’s company is already an enormous contributor to the tax base of the City of Falls Church, because of the success of the booming Eden Center, which has become a one-of-a-kind destination for Vietnamese-Americans in the entire eastern U.S., and even nationally.
The 138 retail tenants at the Eden Center, including 53 food establishments and 18 jewelry stores, almost all Vietnamese-American-owned, contribute to over $1.7 million in annual tax revenue to the City of Falls Church’s coffers, or 2.2 percent of the $77 million annual operating budget.
Shrewd moves by the property ownership to renovate the center with Vietnamese-styled buildings, arches and symbols, and the removal of trouble-spot nightclubs in the past decade, have added to the growth in popularity of the site, which is traditionally choked with customers, creating parking headaches, especially on weekends.
“The Falls Church Police Department is proud of the feather in its cap that the improved security situation at the Eden Center represents,” said Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields at Tuesday’s meeting.
When the police department opened a small sub-station there, with the ownership installed 42 security cameras, and since the police have maintained a high-profile, including with making rounds on bicycles, the crime rate declined dramatically, Frank said.
Some of the restaurants on the site are among the most touted in the Washington, D.C. region, he noted, drawing constant attention and praise from Washingtonian magazine and other publications. The notoriety brought to the Eden Center continues to increase its popularity, and Frank announced that a segment on the center will be included in the Jan. 19 airing of the “No Reservations” TV show on the Travel Channel.
Currently, grand plans are afoot for the annual Vietnamese “Tet” New Year’s celebration at the center on January 25 and 26, when large paper dragons will be marched around the parking lot all day and many other special features are expected to draw huge crowds. Frank’s company has been instrumental in organizing the participation of a large number of Vietnamese-American groups in the effort.
Parking is one of the biggest, and most intractable, problems at the site currently, Frank said, partly because visitors do not come, shop and leave, but tend to spend an entire day. Tour buses filled with Vietnamese-Americans routinely come from as far as Montreal and North Carolina, he added, with the Eden Center being among the “must see” tourist destinations along with other national capital area monuments and museums.
Frank noted he is currently hoping that an additional 21 parking spaces can be created by the removal of some trees in the parking lot, with the proviso that even more trees be added at other locations on the site. He said he’d retained an arborist to examine the options for that.
City Manager Shields urged Frank to move forward with that proposal at City Hall.