Navigating the future of Eden Center: Vietnamese hub seeks inclusion, improvements

For the past 40 years, the Eden Center strip mall in Falls Church, Virginia, has been a hub for the Vietnamese community — those who work, shop and recreate there want to make sure Eden Center’s future reflects those who have made it what it is.

On June 26, the City Council of Falls Church unanimously adopted its East End Small Area Plan, which lays out a guiding vision for future investments. Local activists are cautiously optimistic Eden Center will share in improvements, while protecting the livelihoods of those who own the small businesses that make up the regional destination.

This week, during a midday visit, “There are people bringing their little children here to teach them about Vietnamese culture and food, and there are 80-year-old grandmothers walking around, looking for their karaoke spots,” said Jenn Tran, outreach coordinator with the Viet Place Collective.

With a street address on Wilson Boulevard, Eden Center is wedged into the crossroads of Seven Corners. The shopping center opened in 1962. It is now home to more than 100 restaurants, supermarkets, bubble tea houses, tax preparers, travel agents, produce stands and a billiards hall.

“Eden Center came to prominence in the 80s after the decline of Little Saigon, which was a neighborhood in Arlington, where a lot of Vietnamese businesses settled after their immigration,” said Tran.

As Arlington rejuvenated its businesses and homes along Wilson Boulevard, Little Saigon suffered.

“The development of the Clarendon Metro, which opened in December 1979, and the surrounding mixed use developments that were approved by Arlington County caused significant disruptions and raised rental prices, anywhere from 100% to 500%,” said Tran. “Most of the businesses that were operating there could no longer afford to operate.”

Some went out of business, or moved elsewhere. Just up the road, 3-and-a-half miles up Wilson Boulevard from Clarendon, Eden Center became the local hub of the Vietnamese community when it opened in 1984.

Will today’s Eden Center be reflected in the future?

More than a year ago, word that Falls Church was considering redevelopment in the area where Eden Center is located caused some concern.

“Language barrier was a huge issue in the spread of information about this small area plan,” said Tran, sitting at one of many umbrella-covered metal tables where shoppers can eat food outdoors.

“Because of that, there were a lot of rumors that Eden Center was getting torn down or was being sold or just bulldozed and redeveloped — none of that was true.”

The city quickly squelched concerns about seismic changes to the area, which is a major economic driver for the jurisdiction.

Eden Center’s landlord is Capital Commercial Properties. Alan Frank, general counsel and senior vice president for CCP is definitive: “Eden Center is going to stay the same.”

Frank tells WTOP the landlord has no interest in redeveloping the shopping center.

“We’re 100% full. I have prospective tenants call every day. We have a waiting list,” said Frank. “The tenants have 20 year leases — we’re not doing anything different, and couldn’t even if we wanted to.”

Frank’s reassurances are similar to those shared in a letter to the council describing the landlord’s commitment to Eden Center.

“We intend to continue operating the center for the foreseeable future in much the same way it has evolved over the past four decades,” wrote Graham Eddy, vice president and associate general counsel at Capital Commercial Properties.

“The best way to ensure the long-term health and viability of Eden Center as a Vietnamese/Asian American cultural hub is to simply allow the center to continue operating as it has, and to build upon its well-established legacy.”

Because of the language barrier, Tran is concerned the potential risk to immigrant business owners was blurred.

“It was easy for the landlord to say these rumors are not true and nothing is happening, when in reality, the truth is somewhere in between,” said Tran. “Eden Center is not being torn down, but there are threats to the ecosystem that we as a community need to prepare our businesses for.”

Moving forward, inclusively

Tran, who grew up a few miles from Eden Center, said the city’s adoption of the small area plan “is only the beginning.”

“They have a plan to preserve the buildings, but our concern is there’s no concrete plan to support the businesses,” Tran said. “Without the businesses and people, Eden Center is just brick and mortar, right?”

Tran worries potential renovations at Eden Center could be disruptive. “These are mom and pop shops — this is their livelihood,” she said.

Frank said while the landlord has been upgrading plumbing, parking lot asphalt and doing typical maintenance, it will not result in substantive hardship for the small businesses. “The tenant spaces are not going to change at Eden Center,” he said.

While hearing the concern that what happened to the “Little Saigon” neighborhood  in Clarendon could be repeated in Falls Church, Frank sought to soothe worry.

“What happened in Clarendon is so different,” said Frank. “When several waves of refugees came over from Vietnam, Clarendon was already going to be developed.”

At the time, real estate agents were only too happy to accommodate new immigrants — but only temporarily.

“The real estate guys said, ‘You can have these places cheap, but they have short term leases,'” said Frank. “Any real estate guy could have predicted that (Little Saigon in Arlington) wasn’t going to last long.”



In an effort to reassure tenants at Eden Center who might still be concerned of being displaced through gentrification, “If they come in my office, I ask ‘Would you like a 20 year extension to your lease?'” said Frank.

For her part, Tran is hopeful the city will embrace language access programs and legacy business preservation programs, which exist in other cities with large immigrant businesses: “It’s now about encouraging the city and its voters to support these kind of programs that give immigrant businesses an equal playing field to operate on.”

Other ideas could improve the relationship and synergy between Falls Church and those who live and work there: “We’ve encouraged the city to consider piloting a program of a Vietnamese outreach specialist so someone who understands the community and can help businesses navigate things like permitting processes, and different fees to operate their businesses.”

The city is also considering other ways to support Eden Center.

“A lot of community members thought it would be fitting to add the name ‘Little Saigon’ to the neighborhood,” Train said, “and add Saigon Boulevard to Wilson Boulevard as an honorary name, to kind of signal to the rest of the world that this is a Vietnamese community.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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