Around F.C., News

Kaine Visits Eden Center, Meets With Concerned Viet Citizens

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine was greeted by a new level of Vietnamese-American community activism in the Viet Place Collective (VPC) at Eden Center, a Little City gem and Vietnamese cultural hub, in a tour and luncheon roundtable with regional leaders of the Asian-American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities last Friday in celebration of AANHPI Heritage Month.

“The Eden Center is one of my favorite places in Northern Virginia” said the junior senator (and former Mayor of Richmond, Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Virginia) on social media.  As a U.S. Senator, Kaine has been a frequent visitor to the Eden Center over the years.

Kaine toured businesses and met with owners and patrons before leading a lunch roundtable at Banh Cuon Saigon with AANHPI community leaders.

“Thank you to Sen. Kaine for visiting our restaurant again, as well as giving your utmost support for many small businesses across Virginia.” said Suong Nguyen, long-time owner of Banh Cuon Saigon, a delicious dining establishment tucked in the Saigon West  indoor mall section of the center.

Kaine was joined by Falls Church Vice Mayor Letti Hardi. “It was great to welcome Senator Kaine back to Falls Church, especially to the Eden Center during AANHPI month.” Hardi told the News-Press.

Sen. Kaine and F.C. Vice Mayor Hardi at Banh Cuon Saigon at Eden Center on Friday. A VPC sign from recent “pop-up” events in the background reads “I heard they’re tearing down Eden Center. Is that true? No, but…” in Vietnamese. (Photo: Brian Reach)

Hardi, who grew up going to Eden Center, said they had a lot to talk about, especially with Sen. Kaine’s previous role as Mayor of Richmond.  “We connected over our love of local government and wonky transportation concepts like induced demand, good food, and travels in Honduras,” she said. 

Hardi also appreciated the substance of the Senator’s input on topics discussed during the roundtable.  “Sen.  Kaine took the time to really listen and hear what was important from each of us, then turned them into tangible ways to support us at the federal level.”

The Senator’s visit comes during a time when development talks have spurred the new activism out of concern for the destination’s future.

(Editor’s Note: Representatives of this activism, and of the Eden Center’s ownership, were present in force at this week’s City Council meeting to comment on new changes in the city’s “East End Small Area Plan” which, city officials insist, puts a big emphasis on retaining the current culture and character of the area. A spokesman for the center’s family ownership based in Florida echoed the same sentiment. But VPC said they were concerned for the future over which current electeds and ownership may not have control.) 

After the Vietnam War, waves of refugees fled the country, with many settling in nearby Clarendon. Called “Little Saigon,” Vietnamese businesses made up the majority of Clarendon commerce for about 15 years, until Metro expansion pushed them west seeking lower rents.

The displaced businesses largely found a new home in what is now the Eden Center. Since the addition of the indoor Saigon West section in 1996, it has remained the largest Vietnamese commercial or Asian-themed retail location on the Eastern seaboard, boasting over 125 stores, all with a refreshing authenticity for an area accustomed to corporate chains.

Also at the table was organizer Kyle Witzigman, representing Viet Place Collective (VPC), the aforementioned grassroots organization that has played a pivotal role in facilitating community participation as the F.C. City Council prepares to adopt its East End Small Area Plan.  

“It’s great to have Sen. Kaine come look at the opportunities and challenges business owners here face,” said Witzigman, who said that getting local officials on the ground at Eden Center was an early effort of VPC, and that a visit from the federal level is an encouraging sign of progress.  “Meeting on the ground is a central part to understanding what is at stake.”

“Viet Place Collective mobilized in Eden Center to ensure that the community currently present gets to be a voice in the City’s development discussions.”  said Witzigman, noting that it is 125 small business owners, their employees, and patrons that make Eden Center a cultural hub and international destination.

Without the culture that brings the center to life, observers noted, the location would likely resemble those scattered along Leesburg Pike just to F.C.s south, with more than a few shuttered doors, temporary clearance warehouses, and an expanse of ironically empty parking lots watching jam-packed commuters on highways surrounding them.

Eden Center, in contrast, is always busy, with nary an available parking spot, despite being on an impossibly awkward side of the most frustrating intersection in the region.

Despite being the soul of the location for over 30 years, Eden Center business owners are just as vulnerable to displacement here as they were in Clarendon, which is where Witzigman says VPC comes in.  “We want to ensure the businesses and people most affected by the changes are centered in the discussion.”

Kaine said, “Talking to the Vice Mayor [Hardi], I think she is really savvy about ‘OK, if you’re gonna do this Small Area Plan on the eastern part of Falls Church that is such a heartbeat… you need to figure out the strategies that make it long-term and robust.’”  

He continued by echoing the importance of stakeholders being, in this case literally, invited to the table to get things done right.  “I think that Kyle [Witzigman], Letty and others are helping people realize ‘OK, we really need to include the people here.’”

Also in attendance at the roundtable were State Del. Kathy Tran, who as a child fled Vietnam with her family, Herndon Town Council member Naila Alam, Organizing Team Lead for Hamkae Center Mitch Chan, City of Fairfax Council member So P. Lim, Chair of Democratic Asian Americans of Virginia Praveen Mayyan, Chairwoman of Korean-American Women’s Association of the USA Silvia Patton, Principal at Rahman Consulting Anika Rahman, and Director of Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement (ACE) Collaborative Mitchell Yangson.