Falls Church advances East End revitalization plan as Vietnamese locals fear displacement

(Updated at 11:20 a.m.) A plan to redevelop 10 blocks of Falls Church, including the historic Eden Center, took a major step forward last week, even as existing community members fear getting pushed out.

The City of Falls Church Planning Commission voted Wednesday (June 7) to recommend that the Falls Church City Council adopt the latest draft of the East End Small Area Plan as a “guiding document” for future reinvestment in the area.

The last of eight Planning Opportunity Areas (POAs) that the city identified as in need of revitalization, the East End is dominated by commercial properties between Wilson Blvd, East Broad Street and Hillwood Avenue, just past the edge of Fairfax County’s limits. Most notable of the businesses to be affected is the Eden Center.

The largest Vietnamese shopping center on the East Coast with over 120 stores, Eden frequently attracts masses of visitors from across Northern Virginia — especially Fairfax County, where a large percentage of shop owners and regulars reside — and even across the country.

With many Vietnamese Americans and refugees depending upon Eden as a crucial source of community and connection to their roots, Eden has served as a meaningful cultural touchstone since its founding in 1984, the center’s website says.

“For my parents, who struggled to find home and belong in this country due to language barriers and cultural differences, Eden Center acted as an oasis where they could go to remember a home that they had to leave,” Khoi Duong, a self-described concerned community member, said during the commission meeting last Wednesday.

Local Vietnamese community members formed Viet Place Collective in early 2022 as a direct response to the reveal of the East End Small Area Plan in November 2021. In its current draft, the plan envisions the area as a mixed-use environment with housing, more concentrated retail on Wilson and Roosevelt Blvds, and more walkable streets, among other proposals.

The proposed land use mix in Falls Church’s draft East End Small Area Plan (via City of Falls Church)

According to its website, VPC “aims to uplift and uphold the legacy of Vietnamese culture community and identity in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area for the next generation.” A large majority of its members hail from Fairfax County.

Currently, the group is committed to preserving Eden against the threat of displacement and gentrification that its members believe the plan poses, serving as a key liaison between the largely Vietnamese-speaking shop owners, Eden’s corporate stakeholders and the local government.

Seeing a lack of Vietnamese representation in early discussions of the plan, the group aims to bridge language barriers and facilitate community outreach to represent the needs of the community that will be most affected by the plan — a collaboration that both organizers and city staff suggested could be replicated elsewhere in the region.

VPC most notably teamed up with city planning staff to organize a series of pop-up events at Eden, where the staff communicated with customers and store owners through a Vietnamese translator. VPC’s fourth and final pop-up was on April 22.

“I thought the series of pop ups was really productive. We’ve tried those in the past, but we’ve never had the participation levels we did,” City Director of Planning Paul Stoddard said. “And I think a lot of that is credit to Viet Place Collective for getting word out about the plan.”

Many VPC members at last week’s meeting voiced concerns regarding two areas: a proposed “Cultural Celebration District” in the East End and the implementation of stronger enforcement mechanisms for anti-displacement policies in the plan.

As an “organic community suggestion” and acknowledgement of the Vietnamese community’s “history of displacement from Falls Church and Falls Church’s commitment to equity and cultural preservation,” Little Saigon East would be a more fitting title for the cultural overlay district, VPC organizer Quỳnh Nguyễn argued.

Taking those concerns into account, the commission ultimately amended the draft to include a recommendation that the city council consider Little Saigon East as a viable contender for the district’s name and fully fund the anti-displacement toolkit laid out in the plan.

“I think what we are proud of is the fact that the city incorporated much the community demands that we presented to city staff and city planners that would not have been included otherwise,” Bình Lý, a core VPC organizer, said. “One of the commissioners, Derek Hyra, had mentioned to us that because of our work, this plan has more equity language than any other plan in the city.”

Hyra, a vocal opponent of the plan, was the only commissioner who voted against recommending it to the council.

“We, with this plan, as it states, are going to push a vulnerable population that’s been pushed around for over 25, 30, 40, 50 years,” Hyra said. “….There are a lot of opportunities to put stronger language, to put funding, to put promises behind a plan so that in five to 10 years, we don’t have displacement, but we as a city have not. This is going to be a displacement plan. I will not vote for it.”

However, with the majority of the commission voting in favor, the plan now goes to the council for a vote on whether it should be approved on June 26.

“What I heard from council at the last work session is that they’re supportive of the current state of the plan, so I assume that’ll go through,” Stoddard said.

Until then, VPC will continue its advocacy by collecting public comments, gathering letters from “allied organizations,” contacting community leaders and raising awareness on social media, Lý said. The organization says it remains dedicated to pushing for stronger anti-displacement commitments in the plan.

“I think our push for anti-displacement in the East End and specifically starting at Eden Center [is] a really amazing opportunity for the city to experiment and try something new and commit to real equitable development at a community scale,” VPC organizer Jenn Trần said at the meeting. “And if we see success, apply this citywide and preserve the real fabric and funk of the Falls Church that we love.”