Philadelphia made it possible for community shopping centers like Hoa Binh Plaza to be erased

In August 2019, hundreds of supporters rallied outside 1515 Arch St before the Zoning Board Adjustment to protest Streamline's proposal to tear down Hoa Binh Plaza. (Photo courtesy of VietLead)

In August 2019, hundreds of supporters rallied outside 1515 Arch St before the Zoning Board Adjustment to protest Streamline's proposal to tear down Hoa Binh Plaza. (Photo courtesy of VietLead)

In May of 2019, the long-term business owners at Hoa Binh Plaza first learned that the local development company, Streamline, planned to demolish the historic Vietnamese and Southeast Asian shopping center on 16th street and Washington Avenue. The new plan? To build a mix of 44 luxury single-family homes and multi-family condos.

At one of the initial community meetings after the shocking discovery, one of the former business owners at the Plaza felt defeated, saying: “Chống lại Streamline thì cũng như lấy trứng chọi đá vậy.” Trying to fight Streamline is like throwing eggs at a tower.

An age old Vietnamese proverb, in an American context.

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For three years, grassroots community organization, VietLead, has been organizing to protect long term business tenants of Hoa Binh Plaza. Alongside the small businesses, we have organized concerned residents, community allies, and neighborhood organizations to oppose Streamline’s proposal. Together, we have navigated a frustrating city approvals process that heavily favors developers and have struggled to prevent the displacement of eight long-term local businesses and over 50 jobs.

While Streamline has continuously changed tactics to continue the development process, we have also learned how the fight to save the plaza hit a nerve within the broader Vietnamese and Southeast Asian community in South Philadelphia and emboldened them to action.

The outpouring of support for the online petition, for example, amplified the broad community support for the plaza because it was a part of so many people’s own personal histories in Philadelphia. From folks sharing why they loved Nam Son Bakery to our youth telling us how their parents always brought them to the grocery store each weekend. Truly these businesses had become part of the fabric of the community in South Philadelphia and also in the Viet and Southeast Asian community at large. For a community that had been so recently displaced by war and refugee resettlement merely a generation ago, the reaction to being displaced again felt too real.

When hundreds rallied at the initial Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) hearing in July 2019, Streamline knew they could not win popular support. Streamline asked for a continuance that day to delay the vote, and since had repeatedly asked for continuances, avoiding a potential rejection from the ZBA for months and months and pushing it into the pandemic. During that time, the businesses were served with eviction notices from the plaza owner, aiming to clear out the space so that Streamline could move forward with its plans. In May 2020, during the height of the pandemic, all eight businesses were removed from their long-term home on Washington Avenue.

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Philadelphia lost an economic, historic, and cultural asset that provided crucial resources and local jobs. Today, many of the displaced business owners continue to struggle with health issues and relocation challenges.

After the businesses were evicted, Streamline attempted to bypass both the ZBA process and strong community objections by appealing directly to Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson to pass an ordinance that would specifically allow them to build their project.

The strength of the community organizing prevented such circumvention.

Councilmember Johnson instead urged Streamline to work directly with us in order to figure out a solution. For the better part of 2021, VietLead worked together with two neighborhood Registered Community Organizations — North of Washington Ave Coalition (NOWAC) and South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) — to negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to hold Streamline accountable to community needs including reducing density, affordable housing, and commercial rents. We were hopeful at this stage.

However, even after a summer of negotiations, an August 2021 Community Vote meeting was held before the details of the CBA were finalized. Unsurprisingly, the project was voted down by the majority of nearby residents, and in response, Streamline retaliated by refusing to address the harms it caused the small businesses at Hoa Binh Plaza. Streamline shut out the business tenants and VietLead out of the negotiating process altogether.

In the most updated CBA that will be presented at the vote on Wednesday, March 23, Streamline has taken out the business tenants’ requests for affordable commercial rents and for preferential commercial space leasing, effectively crossing out the former business tenants in the CBA.

We will not be crossed out.

We will continue to oppose Streamline’s erasure of the Hoa Binh businesses. We oppose the developer-friendly approvals process that requires further reform and accountability. We oppose similar efforts of developers across the city to displace Black, brown, immigrant, and low-income communities — our gardens, schools, and affordable housing. We oppose proposals to our streets that pave the way for further gentrification.

In the name of development and “progress,” our communities suffer through being pushed out.

The experiences of the long-term residents, small business owners, and community organizations in the fight for Hoa Binh Plaza are happening all over Philadelphia — from North Philly, to University City, to Strawberry Mansion. VietLead understood that what was happening on 16th and Washington Avenue was a manifestation of a larger racial and economic struggle within Philadelphia. Who is this city for? Who gets a say in how this city is (re)developed? Who is often overlooked and left out?

In reality, community-centered development from the ground up has been occurring throughout Philadelphia for years. Two examples to stand out: first, Philadelphia’s Urban Agriculture Plan “Growing From the Roots,” led by the leadership of Soil Generation, Interface Studio and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation has cultivated policies on land access and ownership, agriculture and education, food waste reduction and recovery, and more through two-plus years of city-wide listening sessions tapping into neighborhoods across the city, across race, and across languages.

Secondly, the work of the United South/Southwest Coalition to engage dozens of community-based organizations and hundreds of near neighbors in a community benefits agreement around Hilco’s purchase of the PES oil refinery. US/SC is leading a process that would center a future away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable green jobs and community needs for the majority Black and brown neighbors that have lived around the refinery in one of the most consequential developments in Philadelphia.

Early on in this campaign, our Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson remarked, “These [Hoa Binh] businesses were here on this avenue when other people didn’t want to invest on this avenue. And that’s why they should have first say as to what happens as we move forward.” We need our Councilmembers to use their political power to stand with long-term communities that are struggling with the impacts of gentrification and displacement. Philadelphia needs protections for its communities determined to be at high risk of displacement. We need our city leaders to center these community-driven policy processes to keep our communities safe.

At the end of the day, only we keep us safe; we keep us home; we keep us rooted. Land use should be a function of our collective needs, not the profitability of a few. No matter what happens to Hoa Binh Plaza, we know this is one fight that is a part of a bigger struggle around who is centered around how land is used. As a refugee immigrant community, we have a stake in these decisions as well.

A final Community Vote Meeting will be held about the future of 1600 Carpenter — the location of the former Hoa Binh Plaza — on March 23 at 7 p.m. VietLead invites residents to join virtually or in-person at 1901 Washington Avenue, Unit B.

Jenny Chen is a Philadelphia-based community planner who has supported VietLead on the Hoa Binh Campaign since 2019. 

Nancy Nguyen is the Executive Director of VietLead, and has been one of the organizers supporting the Hoa Binh business tenants since 2019.

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