Eden Center reinvestment plans get final approval after two years of dedicated community organizing

The City of Falls Church has officially decided to reinvest in a 10-block commercial area that encompasses the largest Vietnamese shopping center on the East Coast.

On Monday, June 26, Falls Church City Council unanimously voted to approve the East End Small Area Plan, which proposes reinvestment into a series of commercial properties — including the historic Eden Center (6751-6799 Wilson Blvd) — between Wilson Blvd, East Broad Street and Hillwood Avenue.

The council’s vote comes after the planning commission endorsed the plan on June 7.

With the East End as the last of eight planning areas deemed “underutilized” and in need of reinvestment under the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the council’s vote serves as the long-awaited culmination of two years of dedicated community outreach and organizing.

After the plan was publicly launched in the fall of 2021, local Vietnamese organizers formed Viet Place Collective and worked extensively with the city to craft a plan that adequately represented the thriving Vietnamese community set to be the largest group affected by reinvestment initiatives.

The grassroots organization was lauded by council members for building an unprecedented model of community engagement in local public policymaking that the city hopes to continue.

VPC’s activism continued at Monday’s meeting, where they urged the council to rename the district currently known as the “East End” or Planning Opportunity 5 to “Little Saigon East” in future city planning.

Eden Senior Vice President and General Counsel Alan Frank objected that the name Little Saigon would take away from Eden’s unique, globally recognized branding and cause the shopping center to lose its name recognition in a country full of “Little Saigons.”

“You say that calling the area Little Saigon is not the same as renaming Eden Center, but we’re talking about the same piece of land, so I think that’s not really right,” Frank said. “If we’re going to market something, we need to market it under one name. We need to attract tenants there under one name, and it’s got to be Eden Center located in the city of Falls Church.”

In response, VPC Core Organizer Hoài Nam Nguyễn clarified that the Eden name would not be under threat of replacement.

The shopping center would keep its trademarked name but belong to a new jurisdiction titled Little Saigon that Fairfax County could promote and create signage for without crossing the line between public and private interests, Nguyễn says.

“We want to make sure that people understand that we’re advocating for a name of an area, so this is a greater neighborhood name, and the shopping centers in the area…have autonomy over their name,” Nguyễn said. “So, no one is believing that the Eden Center name will go away — it’s the opposite. We are believing that [the] Eden Center name will be promoted in conjunction with a Little Saigon name and vice versa. Little Saigon and Eden Center can be together and can work together.”

Nguyễn also acknowledged that the East End area is home to other cultures beyond the Vietnamese community but reaffirmed that the name Little Saigon is not meant to be “exclusive.”

“We feel like Little Saigon is a name that acknowledges the Vietnamese people…and Vietnamese businesses in the area but isn’t exclusive to only the Vietnamese,” Nguyễn said. “There’s plenty of other examples where you have a Little Saigon in other parts of the country where not all the businesses in there are Vietnamese either…So, our intent with the name is not to alienate other minorities or other cultures. It’s to pay tribute to and recognize Vietnamese culture, which is the most predominant one in the area.”

In addition to the East End, Wilson Blvd is also up for renaming. Since Eden Center is one of the most heavily visited properties along the boulevard, VPC organizers similarly propose that it be renamed from Wilson to Saigon Boulevard.

Existing crosswalks around Wilson may also see improvement and expansion soon with city grant writers working to launch development in collaboration with neighboring Fairfax and Arlington counties, Falls Church Director of Planning Paul Stoddard said.

Both counties were given the opportunity to review the East End Small Area Plan, with Arlington County writing a letter of support for the proposed strategies, Senior Planner Emily Bazemore added.

Stoddard noted that any transportation investments will be in conjunction with Fairfax County’s Ring Road project in the Seven Corners area as well as the Route 7 Bus Rapid Transit project to create the possibility of faster bus transportation in the area.

As Falls Church moves forward with reinvesting in the East End block, VPC will advocate for the implementation of a new community outreach coordinator position with the city — a role that Nguyễn says VPC had no choice but to take on during the small area planning process.

“I envision a representative of the city who is able to speak to people in their language,” Nguyễn said. “…The hope is that if [the coordinator speaks] Vietnamese, and the business owners and the people who are shopping at Eden Center speak mostly Vietnamese, that they be able to communicate in a way that…English…might not be understood the same way by them.”

Vice Mayor Letty Hardi, a 30-year Eden customer, voiced support for an official liaison between the local Vietnamese community and city government.

“Come next budget, I would support piloting an outreach coordinator position because I do think that this needs to be not a one-time effort and needs to be something ongoing,” Hardi said. “…Especially given that we have an effective model with Spanish speakers in [Health and Human Services] already, I think [that] could be replicated here with a Vietnamese speaker.”

The city council’s vote came as a “surreal” moment to VPC, who have been working “non-stop” for the last two years to make sure their community demands were heard, Nguyễn said.

“It’s a good time for us to take a step back, take a break because I feel like we deserve that and to just figure out for ourselves what we want next,” Nguyễn said. “But we’re excited that the plan passed. We’re excited that we’ve gotten a lot of support from the community, and we have a much better idea of the issues and how to advocate…I feel like we are in a much better position than we were when we started.”