Last Saturday, the first of four “pop ups” at Falls Church’s Vietnamese-American Eden Center were hosted by the City’s East End Small Area Plan (SAP) team, to discuss the plan and engage with the Center’s largely Viet-American community for input.
The East End SAP team spent the day at the fountain outside the Saigon West section of the Center, where a constant and bustling crowd surrounded the table throughout the event, many of whom had heard rumors surrounding the East End SAP — primarily that the Eden Center could be torn down.
Also in attendance were about ten volunteers with Viet Place Collective (VPC), a grassroots organization concerned with preserving and promoting the Vietnamese community’s legacy in the region. “With the pop ups, we want to ensure that the city can properly gather input from the Vietnamese businesses and patrons,” said VPC Core Organizer Binh Ly, who noted that they also filled in as interpreters. The city came equipped with handouts in Vietnamese and English, however the interpreter they contracted with was a no-show for the event.
“Kudos to the Viet Place Collective for helping bridge the city staff’s outreach efforts to the businesses and giving them a voice,” said city Vice Mayor Letty Hardi, who grew up going to Eden Center in the 1990s, and says small business ownership is part of her own family’s immigrant story. “I know first-hand the Eden Center is a special place. We have a tremendous responsibility to celebrate the culture and support the diverse businesses and livelihoods in the [East End] Small Area Plan that can be enjoyed by future generations.”
Though supportive of the pop ups (a popular term these days for informal and sometimes spontaneous events) as an outreach effort to the actual businesses at Eden Center, VPC volunteers were critical of how the city has been handling outreach efforts when discussing the East End SAP. “When the city thinks of Eden Center, they just speak with the landlord’s representative.” said Ly, who added that, up until the events, the city had largely left out the business owners most vulnerable to any change in the area. “We are trying to break this negligent pattern, and remind the city that this is a community of over 100 small businesses with specific needs.”
Posted on a permanent bulletin board installed along Eden Center’s outer walkway, six copies of notices behind its glass window emphasized “Eden Center is not being sold or redeveloped,” and that “many businesses have current leases that can extend beyond the year 2060!” Though the notice also continued to encourage participation in the city’s pop ups, no dates or times were given.
Organizers pointed out that the notice made no mention of the Vietnamese presence at the Center, let alone any cultural preservation — and that all six copies were in English. “The landlord rarely communicates to tenants ‘in-language,’” said Ly.
Top on VPC’s list of priorities is for the City Council to fund a full-time Vietnamese Outreach Coordinator. “We’re out with the community to make sure Vietnamese folks are being fully informed,” said Jenn Tran, Outreach Coordinator with VPC, who cited a lack of education and transparency from the city and landlord as recent cause for the rampant spreading of misinformation, including that the Eden Center would be closed as a result of the East End SAP. “We’ve been diligently building relationships with Eden business owners to understand their concerns and hopes for the future, not to make assumptions or impose the city’s idea of ‘good planning.’”
Echoes of the Past Fuel Displacement Concerns
With all parties expressing the same desire — for Eden Center to remain a hub of Vietnamese culture and commerce — it may initially be difficult to understand the source of the community’s criticism without understanding the history that brought them to the parcel in the middle of Seven Corners.
Before the Vietnam War, about 15,000 Vietnamese immigrants lived in the United States. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, 140,000 refugees were accepted into the country in what is now considered a “first wave.” These refugees were largely wealthy or educated residents of the Saigon region, most of whom fled with money and jewelry sewn into their clothes, leaving everything else behind. They were warmly greeted by a Nation eager to repent after the end of a misguided and unpopular war.
Used to living near the Capital city, many were told about Arlington before leaving Vietnam as an ideal place to relocate, if not settling in the West Coast upon arrival. By 1980 the Vietnamese immigrant population had grown from 15,000 to 245,000, and 15 percent of the country’s Vietnamese population lived in Arlington, primarily in the Clarendon neighborhood, which was among many “Little Saigon” neighborhoods that popped up around the country during the time.
Clarendon had become run-down in the 15 years prior, with the construction of the Capital Beltway, Tysons Corner, and new strip developments with parking lots left stores shuttered — while construction for the Clarendon Metro station caused additional disruption. This left business rents as cheap as $1 per square foot, which provided an excellent opportunity for the area’s new neighbors to establish businesses.
“Little Saigon” provided Vietnamese folks with a place to share news about friends and family, ship packages home, and access familiar groceries, shops, and entertainment. Its success was short lived, however, after the Clarendon Station opened on the newly formed Orange Line in December 1979, causing rents to quickly increase to as high as $25 per square foot, as older buildings were being emptied for demolition, destined to be replaced by high-rise apartment buildings.
Arlington County was very vocal about their support for the Vietnamese community when planning additional development. A New York Times article in 1989 covered the displacement of Little Saigon from Arlington — which at the time still represented half of all businesses in Clarendon. At the time, the Executive Director of Clarendon Alliance, Andrea Grenadier, was quoted as saying “We would like for the Vietnamese to stay because they have helped make the neighborhood a place where people not only work but also live and shop. We don’t want just a bunch of tall office buildings. We like the ethnic flavor. But keeping the right balance is a little tricky. We’re working at it.’’ Today only one restaurant remains from Little Saigon. Arlington failed.
Also contributing to the neighborhood’s quick decline was increasingly unfavorable public sentiment regarding immigration, as a second wave of less educated Vietnamese arrived, having fled the Communist regime on small boats with nothing. An estimated 800,000 Vietnamese “boat people” made it to another country safely between 1975 and 1995, while up to 400,000 perished during the perilous journey.
As rents reached up to $30 per square foot during the mid 1980s, Vietnamese businesses began moving west along Columbia Pike and Wilson Boulevard — and when the Plaza Seven Shopping Center lost its anchor grocery store, many moved their businesses to the location, forming what is now the Eden Center.
In 1996 the addition of the 32,400 square foot Saigon West section made Eden Center the largest Vietnamese commercial — and largest Asian-themed mall — on the east coast of North America. Eden Center now boasts over 125 stores, including over 40 restaurants and eateries. About half of the stores have direct entrances from the parking lot, while the other half are located inside three indoor malls.
Parking a Unanimous First Priority for Eden Center Merchants
“When I think about the plans, I just worry about, for the businesses, about parking,” said one business owner, who asked to remain anonymous. “We don’t have enough parking for 120 stores in the mall. A lot of customers want to come in, but they don’t want to fight with the parking.” Indeed, any visitor to Eden Center will immediately understand the problem — parking took about fifteen minutes on the day of the pop up, with every space occupied.
Asked what Eden Center means to them personally, they responded that the cultural hub “means everything. This is the place; a lot of people know Eden Center is the Vietnamese community, and we have lots of authentic things and food to serve the customer… that you won’t find anywhere else.” Asked how the city can celebrate Vietnamese culture in the plan, the concern was laid bare. “The plan is great to celebrate Vietnamese culture, but I’m not sure if the small businesses can last through any construction or development to experience [it].”
The owner also referenced recent history as a source for community distrust. “We have a hard time trusting the City’s words, because in 2008 we had town halls with the City asking for help and assistance. We did Town Hall meetings, we did city functions, to help with our rent because rent is too high.”
Emily Bazemore, City of Falls Church Senior Planner and representative for the city at the event, followed up by asking what the city can do for them.
“It’s hard to trust [the city], right? Because it’s happened once. Nobody helped us. Nobody helps us. I remember 34 years ago when our community located in Clarendon, and then we — the community — had to move. That’s why we don’t trust you,” added the owner, referencing the displacement from Arlington that was the genesis of Eden Center. “The same thing happened in Clarendon, where they came up with a plan to build apartments and new buildings, but preserve the storefronts, and they improved the streets — but then the Metro came, and the new buildings came, and we had to find a new place to go.”
All business owners interviewed echoed concerns about parking. Parking woes went beyond the 900 spaces in front and 300 in back (for employees) — but also the expansion of the parking garage which, instead of providing relief to the Center’s capacity, is being used as a parking lot to bus gamblers to Hollywood Casino in West Virginia. Building maintenance, a lack of hot water, flooding during heavy rain, and the overall vulnerability of the Center to the sale of the land were also raised as secondary concerns.
Suggestions from attendees included the city revisiting installing a flagpole and monument honoring veterans of the Vietnam War to the property, the introduction of an outdoor plaza space (with emphasis that more parking is a prerequisite), and the renaming of Wilson Blvd., within the City of Falls Church, to Saigon Blvd. Bazemore said the renaming of the road is a recommendation they were already planning to include in the updated East End SAP.
Despite reassurances, many still believe the Eden Center is destined for demolition — and the community another round of displacement — a by-product of history and rumors resulting from communication challenges to-date.
“We’ve heard consistently that the City, property owner, and businesses have the same shared goal — there are no redevelopment plans now or in the future” added Vice Mayor Hardi, who said the time is now to engage in this conversation and make sure the city succeeds where Arlington failed. “the opportunity to figure out how to reinvest and improve the Eden Center — from building conditions, gathering spaces, walk and bike accessibility, and support of the tenants — is now. We are listening.”