Tucked back into one of the interior hallways of Falls Church’s sprawling shopping mall Eden Center, Banh Cuon Saigon can be easy to miss if you don’t know where to go. But thanks to its eponymous best seller — chewy, steamed, and fermented rice rolls filled with seasoned ground pork and shrimp — and other Northern Vietnamese favorites like bun rieu oc (a conch and crab meat noodle soup), Banh Cuon Saigon still manages to draw a consistent crowd.
Over the past 27 years at Eden Center, restaurateur Suong Nguyen, who opened Banh Cuon six years after emigrating to the U.S., has had to deal with crime, recession, and mounting competition, but through it all, she’s kept going. Now, the possibility of redevelopment threatens to edge Nguyen and small business owners like herself out of the very tourist destination she helped create.
Eden Center, a sprawling, multi-building shopping mall comprised of 125 businesses, including more than 30 restaurants and more than a dozen bakeries and cafes, almost entirely operated by first- to third- generation Vietnamese families, is the crown jewel of a bustling commercial corridor known as the East End. It’s also one of seven “planning opportunity areas” identified by the Falls Church city government that’s bordered by Wilson Boulevard, East Broad Street, and Hillwood Avenue. Eden Center generates the most tax revenue by far (over $1.3 million in 2020) in the commercial area that includes BJ’s Wholesale Club, 24 Hour Fitness, and Koons Ford.
The East End Small Area Plan, which outlines a future roadmap for the targeted geographical region, is meant to shape potential investment and redevelopment opportunities. But when the city first began the planning process in fall 2021, Nguyen hadn’t heard anything about it. It was only after speaking with a rep from a new grassroots volunteer group called Viet Place Collective (VPC) that she began to understand what was happening and what was at stake.
Speaking through translator Denise Nguyen, one of the organizers of VPC, Nguyen says: “I was worried that Eden Center would go away. Eden’s survival is due to the older generations that built this community in the first place. It’s them that’s made it possible. If the city comes in and makes changes, the older generation may not be able to withstand the changes and sustain the community as they have.”
Denise Nguyen and Victor Nguyen-Long grew up visiting Eden Center with their families. The shopping center represents more than commerce to them; it represents the epitome of their “third culture” identities. Nguyen has vivid memories of traveling to Eden Center from Williamsburg, Virginia with her parents. Now, she says, visits to Eden Center are an important part of sharing her culture with her 7-year-old daughter.
“Eden is a way for me to feel more comfortable and find more pathways into my identity and heritage,” she says. “It’s a way for me to pass it on to my daughter so that there’s a legacy there and she’s proud of it and she can say I’m Vietnamese-American, not just American.”
When Nguyen-Long read about the Falls Church small area plan on a D.C. Listserv, he took immediate action, bringing his mother and Nguyen with him to the first community meeting in November. He was dismayed by the lack of Vietnamese representation at that meeting and, within weeks, he and others had started Viet Place Collective, whose mission is to “build power across generations to uplift and uphold the legacy of the Vietnamese community in the DMV.” One place to start, says Nguyen-Long, is with the name of the area itself.
“Instead of calling it the East End,” he suggested, “why not call it ‘Little Saigon,’ which then creates cultural pressure on businesses and developers to maintain its Vietnamese identity.”
Nguyen-Long says he’s wary of the potential displacement that can result from redevelopment. And, he notes, it wouldn’t be the first time this same group of business owners had been pushed out by progress. As a young child, he saw the same scenario play out with the original enclave of Vietnamese-owned businesses in Clarendon. Having emigrated to Arlington after the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon, they were displaced to Falls Church in the 1980s with the introduction of the Metro and resulting construction and increase in real estate values.
VPC was created to respond to the city’s plan — not object to it. Based on the displacement its community experienced in the past, VPC’s goal was to speak up for the Vietnamese business owners (via translators, etc.) who weren’t being included properly in the early stages. There’s been a glaring divide between the planning commission and the community, Nguyen-Long notes, citing the lack of Vietnamese speakers within city government, despite the fact that the businesses that make up Eden Center – the largest tourist destination in the city – are operated by predominantly Vietnamese speakers. That disconnect, he says, has led to rumors, speculation, and confusion.
Nguyen-Long, who works in marketing, insists he’s not anti-development per se. He agrees that the East End would benefit from added greenspace and tree canopy, improved infrastructure and parking, and pedestrian-friendly improvements like wider sidewalks – all of which are elements of the hyperlocal plan.
“The reality is we all want these amenities. All of those things are great on paper, but it comes with a price. It leads to displacement and gentrification, which we’ve seen all over D.C.,” he says.
Nguyen’s fear is largely theoretical; if the city makes improvements, he believes that may lead to Eden Center raising rents and possibly attracting other non-Asian and generic businesses like a Sephora or Starbucks that will push out these older business owners who won’t be able to keep up.
Despite his concerns, Nguyen-Long remains optimistic. “We believe that there’s an equitable outcome between the city, the tenants and landlord, and the community. We want to ensure that outcome as much as possible.”
VPC, which includes eight core members and additional volunteers, translated and printed fliers in Vietnamese to let Eden Center business owners know about community pop-ups to discuss the small area plan, delivering those fliers door-to-door, and answering questions from concerned tenants. They shared information with the Vietnamese community and beyond through their Instagram, which gained more followers in its first day than the Eden Center Instagram itself.
“From a generational standpoint, we’re a little younger than the business owners at Eden Center, but we believe that we see the bigger picture, the writing on the wall, and we want to make sure that everybody else sees it as well,” says Nguyen. “This plan is going to directly impact the tenants and the community in the long-term, and we need to act now to ensure the Vietnamese community has a legitimate seat at the table in this planning process.”
Falls Church’s director of planning Paul Stoddard says that’s exactly what the small area planning process is all about.
“This is laying out what kind of place people want this to be and how to get there. It’s not an application to tear down a bunch of buildings or move a bunch of people out,” says Stoddard. “I think the risk is that, if you don’t make a plan, then you do run the risk of displacement and happenstance redevelopment, and maybe you don’t actually land where you wanted to.”
Stoddard says the city conducted online surveys and meetings to get buy-in from the community. But “we knew that wasn’t everything we wanted to do because we don’t typically get a lot of Vietnamese representation in those venues,” he adds. So the city tried yard signs and pop-ups on-site at Eden Center, with materials printed in Vietnamese and English.
When the community started responding, Stoddard learned that they had plenty of requests, from more parking to bathroom renovations at Eden Center, to preservation of the Vietnamese community and improved resources for its small business owners. The process itself, Stoddard says, pointed to the need for an outreach coordinator who could serve as a liaison between the city and the community — a role that may be included in the final plan.
The planning process is nearing completion, having held its final community meeting on April 22. The city took a lot of the suggestions posted by VPC and included language to address such concerns in the plan.
There’s still time for the greater community to stay involved in the overall process. Arlington’s new dim sum parlor Sparrow Room is hosting a fundraiser for VPC’s cause on Wednesday, May 17. Once the plan is formalized, there will still be many opportunities for the plan to be acted upon (or not) by the city and private businesses and investors.
“I know there are going to be changes. People are going to continue to make comments, and they should,” says Stoddard. “That’s the whole point of the public process.” Many of the issues raised by community members — things like the need for wayfinding signage and improved public restrooms — will fall to Capital Commercial Properties, the company that has owned and managed Eden Center since its early days in the 1980s. Its senior vice president Alan Frank says CCP will continue to make improvements, as they’ve done since he came on board in 1995. But, he notes, concern over displacement is overblown.
“It’s not a dramatic thing where you’re going to suddenly have 115 tenants that need to find a new home. That’s just not happening,” says Frank. “Eden Center isn’t going anywhere. We’re not going to redevelop. It’s our intention that Eden Center remains where it is, getting better and better every year, forever.”
Both the businesses and Capital Commercial Properties are bound by the terms of their leases, many of which extend for years in the future.
“If a tenant comes in today and says I heard about this plan,” says Frank. “My answer is, would you like to sign a 30-year lease extension?”
From her hidden gem within Eden Center, Suong Nguyen has been fighting for her rights and those of other tenants for the past 27 years, and she says she’s going to keep fighting. Nguyen was one of 16 other tenants that sued the landlord for mismanagement in 2012.
“Every day is a fight for Eden Center and the community because it’s very hard given the way Eden Center is managed,” says Nguyen. “With the news of the small area plan and more development comes the fear of Eden Center of no longer being a home for small businesses. I’m very scared.”
But, thanks to VPC and other concerned citizens, Nguyen won’t be alone in that fight. Nguyen-Long says he feels as though he’s standing on a precipice of a new era of Asian activism and pride, and preserving the culture of Eden Center is central to it.
“The last bastion of our heritage and identity is Eden Center,” he says.