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.”
The theater at the Founders Row mixed-use project could be scaled down from earlier plans, but the tradeoff is that Falls Church could be getting a new arcade and bowling alley.
At a meeting of the Falls Church City Council on Monday, the Council reviewed requested changes for Founders Row. The development was approved for 59,493 square feet of ground floor retail, 4,946 square feet of office space, 394 apartments and a 32,079 square foot, 2-story movie theater. That theater, though, has become something of a sticking point.
Along the way, developer Mill Creek Residential Trust has asked for concessions that the City Council said they’ve been reticent to give. One condition of approval was a cap on residential occupancies at 50% until the movie theater was opened.
The theater was originally slated to be a Studio Movie Grill, but the dine-in movie chain filed for bankruptcy due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[The] Applicant had previously entered a lease agreement with a theater operator, but the operator declared bankruptcy stemming from economic challenges due to the COVID pandemic,” the staff report said.
The report noted that Mill Creek wanted to be able to fully open the residential side of the project even if they were unable to secure another movie theater.
“With the bankruptcy and loss of the original theater and the current marketplace the ability to secure a replacement theater was delayed, while the Founders Row project construction and apartment occupancies were continuing,” the report said. “In order to release the second half of the project residential apartment for occupancies, Mill Creek agreed to add additional guarantees in support of the theater by escrowing $3.6 million in funds for commercial tenant improvements and with at least 50 percent of the total commercial retail having tenant improvements underway prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancies for the last twenty (20) residential units.”
Now, Mill Creek is asking to reduce the minimum number of seats from 750 to 550.
The report said Mill Creek is now in the stages of securing a lease with Paragon Theaters.
“[The] Applicant is in the final stages of securing a lease with Paragon Theaters,” the report said. “Paragon will operate a 7-screen movie theater, including an IMAX-similar screen with a total capacity of approximately 600 seats. This is one less screen and approximately 150 fewer seats than previously agreed to in the [voluntary concessions], which necessities the current application.”
Another change to the theater space is the addition of a new full-service restaurant and bar in the lobby along with a small arcade, featuring games and bowling.
Falls Church, however, has “arcades” listed under prohibited uses, alongside gun stores and porn shops. According to the report prohibited uses include:
- Gun stores or firearm dealers, or shooting ranges
- Roller rink
- Amusement arcade
- Adult pornographic book store
The applicant is hoping to add “except as an accessory use to another permitted use” as a corollary to Falls Church’s Music Man-esque fear of arcades.
City Manager Wyatt Shields said the developer is asking for additional months to meet some of the project milestones and is asking for the incentive payments from the Economic Development Authority to be prorated with the theater opening rather than commencing after the first full year of operation as originally agreed.
The topic was briefly discussed at a City Council meeting earlier this week, but it was ultimately deferred to the Tuesday, Sept. 27, meeting.
“I like the concept of milestones,” said City Council member Letty Hardi. “I understand that due to market conditions things have had to move out, but I would still like to make sure there is forward progress.”
It’s holding another open house tomorrow (Saturday) at 10 a.m. in its fellowship hall with a question-and-answer session about the proposed project, which requires Fairfax City Council to rezone the area.
The church is seeking to partner with three nonprofits and help house individuals currently making $79,700 or less as well as families of four with an income of $113,850 or less, targeting people in the 40% to 80% range of the area median income.
The church envisions offering a 30-year mortgage, but with land leased at $1 per year, it will remove some $100,000 to $300,000 in land costs that other homeowners might face. Building height and design would be comparable to nearby buildings on the eastern border of the property, according to an application.
The proposed project comes through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, homeless services organization Homestretch and HomeAid Northern Virginia, which is tied to the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.
“Eight units will be sold with a long-term ground sublease to income eligible Habitat NOVA families and two of the units will be sold to Homestretch for their Sacred Homes Program,” the church’s application says.
However, a representative of a local advocacy group for affordable housing says city staff seem to be catering to a handful of vocal opponents, thereby putting up roadblocks.
Judy Fisher said the city has required two traffic studies so far to understand changes from the pandemic, but then asked for a third traffic study. She said it’s creating hardship for the project, which has relied on pro bono work for the studies.
City spokesman Matthew Kaiser said the project’s application was received May 6, 2022, and is currently under its first round of review.
“There will be only one traffic study,” he wrote in an email.
But Fisher said the church decided to pursue the project five years ago, and the partnership submitted two applications in 2021, receiving staff comments.
“There has been what feels like not very good cooperation from the city,” she said. “It feels like obstruction.”
According to a church flier, it submitted a rezoning application last year in February and resubmitted it Oct. 27.
The flier says the church has committed up to $400,000 with the land to serve families needing affordable housing.