Sunday, June 25, 2023

Rockville would welcome Little Saigon from Falls Church

The City of Falls Church appears to have gotten caught trying to do its version of Montgomery County's highly-controversial "minor master plan amendment," for a small area that includes the popular Eden Center at 6751-6799 Wilson Boulevard. Home to over 100 businesses, the Eden Center is a commercial and cultural center for the local Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, and is often referred to as "Little Saigon." A plan seeking input about the future of that property and others surrounding it understandably rattled that community, and the small business owners. Falls Church is now furiously backtracking, telling The Washington Post that the plan was actually meant to explore how Eden Center "might be enhanced," and the center's owner has vigorously assured tenants and patrons that it did not request the initiation of the "Small Area Plan."

I don't closely follow local politics in the City of Falls Church, so I can't tell you if the city government is controlled by developers like Montgomery County's is. Is there a Falls Church equivalent to the Montgomery County cartel? I can't answer that, either.

But the Falls Church plan's "scope of work" looks very close to a Montgomery County minor master plan amendment. Such an amendment, the legality of which has been strongly debated but not successfully challenged in Montgomery County court so far, is virtually always initiated by a landowner in the area in question. Because it is illegal to rezone a single property for the benefit of its owner, Montgomery County created the MMPA process to provide a quick road to developer profits without requiring the complication of a full sector plan update.

How does the MMPA process work? A landowner and developer quietly approach elected officials and the Montgomery County Planning Department with their plans. Planning staff are directed to draw up a small map that includes the property seeking upzoning and redevelopment, and several other random properties around it. The Planning Department, Planning Board, and County Council tell the public the MMPA is simply an attempt to create a vision for the future of the area in question. In reality, a precise zoning change sought by the landowner/developer is already known, and will be ratified by the Board and Council after a "public process." The landowner/developer then submit preliminary and sketch plans for the redevelopment that was planned all along, but which the public has usually been kept in the dark about throughout the MMPA process.

To add insult to injury, the Planning Board and County Council rarely use the significant power they wield in the MMPA process to extract community benefits from the future development the new upzoning will allow. For example, a developer initiated the MMPA process for an area around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and Elm Street in Bethesda over a decade ago. It was seeking to redevelop 7272 Wisconsin Avenue at greater height and density than allowed under the zoning at that time. Greater scale means greater profit, and the MMPA is what allows that profit to be reaped.

Did the Planning Board and County Council use the opportunity to require the future developer of 7272 Wisconsin to construct a replacement Capital Crescent Trail tunnel under Wisconsin Avenue? No. In fact, it extracted no concessions at all in that MMPA. The original developer got the upzoning it sought, but ended up dropping its plans, and a second developer later successfully redeveloped the site. Now Montgomery County taxpayers are facing an $82.5 million tab for a tunnel that may never even be built at this point, all because the Council couldn't burden its developer sugar daddies with any extra expenses on their extra profits gained at public expense (schools, roads, services, and...trail tunnels).

So, while it may well be true that the owner of Eden Center did not request the City of Falls Church to initiate the "Small Area Plan," the process and zoning tool sound extremely similar to Montgomery's MMPA. I would suspect it's very likely some property owner within the plan area absolutely did get this process started. 

While many assurances are being made to the public and press about what the Small Area Plan plan won't do, city leaders are indeed going to be voting on a plan this Tuesday night. That plan states that introducing residential housing to the commercial sites that are included in the plan area is a high priority. It does propose squeezing a hotel with a ground floor cultural center onto the parking lot of the Eden Center, kind of a strange idea for shopping center that currently has a shortage of spaces at peak times.

However, the plan doesn't recommend redevelopment of the Eden Center at this time. It appears the well-organized efforts of the engaged community who patronize or own businesses at the center were effective in forcing a retreat by the City of Falls Church. 

But if the feared gentrification does come to pass in the future, the City of Rockville will be more than glad to warmly welcome the businesses at Eden Center to relocate here. Similar gentrification of Asian commercial hubs in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia have been a boon for Rockville over the last two decades, as many of those businesses and residents have relocated here. As a result, Rockville is now arguably the top dining destination in the region for Asian cuisine, in addition to the many Asian retail and service businesses here. 

The Asian community in Rockville has become a major economic engine for the city. One reason this has happened is that land use decisions in Rockville are not made by the Montgomery County Planning Board or Montgomery County Council. The city has its own planning authority. Politically-active residents, and two consecutive mayors who made it a priority to retain Rockville's small town neighborhood character, have been able to hold off the high-density urbanization happening elsewhere in the County. Among the benefits of that, is many storefronts ideal for small business that might have been lost are still here.

A plan that envisioned turning Rockville Pike into a concrete canyon was batted down and soundly defeated in the last decade. As a result, the Pike has remained the retail powerhouse that has made it the biggest generator of commercial revenue in the entire state of Maryland. Sites like the former Century Ford dealership, that had been envisioned by out-of-town consultants as another cookie-cutter urban "town center," ended up redeveloping in classic Rockville Pike style, with fast food restaurants, AAA auto services and an urgent care clinic. While the Twinbrook Quarter development received a density exception, largely on the basis of its eagerly-awaited Wegmans grocery store retail anchor, imagining developments of its size up and down both sides of the Pike reminds us of the bullet Rockville dodged in recent years.

Assuming Rockville voters continue to make wise choices at the ballot box this November, the city should remain an attractive destination for diners and Asian businesses alike. If Falls Church elected officials someday find developer profits to be a higher priority than keeping the jewel of Little Saigon within its borders, Rockville will be more than happy to add those businesses to our fold.

Map courtesy City of Falls Church


  1. LOVE MUCH OF THIS think of Rockville as little Chinatown-Thing is WHY CAN'T I FIND A REALLY GOOD EGGROLL..and very golden Chicken stock or soup? ie not watered down!? It is not that important I hear NYC would never have had that problem. Love good Pho and Rockville has good ones

  2. Well tell the people on the ballot BEFORE what we want.....

  3. Rockville is Chinatown and should market itself as such. That is the comparative advantage Rockville holds vs like Bethesda or anywhere else in DC Metro.