By Michelle Laggan
Photo by Jake Haut
On May 9th, OCF Realty posted a blog article entitled “Hoa Binh Plaza at 16th & Washington Likely Closing as Developers Propose Homes and Duplexes.” The article stated that local developers at Streamline, would present their plans to build a new housing complex to South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) on May15th.
Little did they know, they broke this news to both the public, and the small business owners at the plaza. In the following days, many of the store owners whose businesses are located within the plaza heard secondhand from concerned customers that they “could soon close their doors forever.”
Some of the small business owners like Mr. and Mrs. Ngan, owners of Hung Long Communication, Inc., and Mr. Tuan (Tommy) Hinnson, owner of Nam Son Bakery, were shocked, hurt, and at risk of losing everything. When they asked their landlord if the building had been sold, he refused to give them a straight answer.
If Hoa Binh Plaza were to close, Hinnison, as well as many other business owners in the plaza, would not be able to relocate. Earlier in June, he stated that to disassemble and move his baking equipment would cost about $60,000. Mr. Xing Zhou, who owns the Big 8 Supermarket, and Mr. Toan, who owns Huong Tram Restaurant, and the Ngan family are in similar situations. Hung Long, Super 8 and Huong Tram have been operating out of the plaza for 30 years. Hoa Binh Plaza was the first Vietnamese plaza built in the tri-state area and there are 10 businesses located inside.
In order to go forward with their plans to build a housing complex of five duplexes, two six-unit condos and 22 single family homes, Streamline will need to have their application for a zoning variance accepted. Convincing the Zoning Board of Adjustment to reject these plans is the community’s best chance at saving Hoa Binh Plaza. The property where the plaza is located, like most of Washington Ave west of Broad, is currently zoned for industrial use. A variance would only change the zoning at 1600 Carpenter, as opposed to rezoning, which would call for a change in the zoning of Washington Ave at large.
SOSNA voted to approve the zoning variance at a Civic Design Review (CDR) meeting on June 4th. None of the business owners within the plaza were present. According to the Philadelphia City Planning Commision (PCPC), any developers applying for a zoning variance must “notify all affected addresses within 20 days of notification by the Planning Commission.”
At a City Planning Commision meeting on July 16th, representatives of the developers claimed that they had “mailing certificates of the notice requirements.” That said, it is not only common courtesy and best-practice to assure that all affected businesses have received notification of relevant CDR meetings, but said meetings are required to be “public and advertised.” It is possible that the developers mailed the notice to the owners of the plaza, who then did not relay the information to the business within the plaza.
Because Hoa Binh Plaza is a community staple, word spread quickly throughout South Philly and the city at large. Vietlead is a grassroots organization based in Philly & South Jersey. On June 19th, they created a petition to save Hao Binh plaza. The online petition gained over 9,000 signatures in just four days, and is now nearing its goal of 12,800 signatures. There are also 4,000 signatures on paper which business owners in the plaza collected from their customers.
On June 25th, Vietlead organized a community rally in Huong Tram Restaurant, at which business owners were able to speak directly to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Community organizers from the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, Cambodian Business Association, Asian Americans United, Philly for Real Justice, and the Vietnamese Community of Greater Philadelphia also spoke in solidarity with their cause. Between community members and organizers, attendance was estimated at 75-100 people.
Hoa Binh Plaza first opened around 1990. While Hoa Binh Plaza is loved by many for its great food and affordable services, it doubles as a community center for Vietnamese and Southeast Asian people living in Philadelphia. Tommy Hinnison explained this during his speech.
“People in store fronts, convenience stores and corner stores, they are not rich people. They are here for everybody. Whatever you need, they are there for you. But now-a-days you see them less and less. We live here, our culture is here. Not only the Vietnamese people, Cambodian, Laotian, Chinese, Vietnamese, whatever. We are the Peace Plaza, Hoa Binh plaza…. This restaurant has held, I don’t know, a thousand Cambodian weddings? Every year we have a lot. So it’s our culture here, please don’t destroy us. We were destroyed by the Vietnamese Communists once already so we were hurt very much already, so please stand behind us and help us save this Plaza.”
In response, Councilman Johnson said that he “was under the impression that everyone was on board.” He followed, “I don’t see how I could be supportive of this, outright evicting all the tenants… so no, I’m not going to be supportive of kicking all of the businesses out, that’s first and foremost, and I’ll say that publicly and for the record.”
He also said that he would begin to negotiate and have a conversation with the developer, as well as SOSNA, who “praised the project for its inclusion of 10% affordable housing at 80% AMI”, which OCF described in an article as “under $300,000”. Neither of the two present members of the North of Washington Avenue Coalition (NOWAC), the other RCO in the area, voted in favor of this project at the Civic Design Review (CDR) meeting. When asked for a comment, Ms. Shikomba, of NOWAC, said that the area needs jobs more than housing, and that she voted against the project due to lack of adequate affordable housing.
SOSNA did not reply to a request for comment, but the office of Councilman Johnson said that “Councilman Johnson has met with the business owners and helped put them in touch with the developer and the relevant registered community organizations (SOSNA and NOWAC). As of now, conversations about how to address the business owners’ concerns are ongoing.”
The Zoning Board of Adjustment will review Streamline’s application Wednesday, July 24th. Vietlead has organized an opposing movement to take place that day at 9:00am, outside of the zoning board’s offices at 1515 Arch Street.
“There’s memories to be had here,” said Mr. Sarun Chan, Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, as he closed out his speech at the rally on the 25th. “I’m hopeful that the people in this room, Mr. Kenyatta, everyone else who is in this space who has a voice, please continue to remember those memories and fight for those memories. Because at the end of the day, your children will not know where their grandparents got married, they will not know where their parents got married, all they will remember is the death and the genocide that we first survived, and there will be no [places] within this city where they can remember [how] we first arrived.”