Washington Avenue’s Hoa Binh Plaza and Jewelers Row are leagues apart in time and space, and yet they share a common fate: Both retail centers are threatened by the unstoppable tidal force of Philadelphia’s housing boom.
Jewelers Row is, of course, America’s oldest diamond district. Located a block from Independence Mall, its earliest buildings date from the 18th century and its products run into the thousands of dollars. Hoa Binh Plaza, an Asian shopping center, operates out of a grim, one-story building that was thrown up in the 1980s and not meant to last. It sells food and housewares at impossibly low prices, on a tired industrial corridor that cries out for improvement. And yet the threat to Hoa Binh Plaza should concern us as much as plans to gut the architecture of Philadelphia’s storied jewelry district.
Some people call what’s happening at Hoa Binh Plaza and Jewelers Row commercial gentrification, although that suggests their businesses will be replaced by more upscale variants. What makes the two cases so distressing is that the existing stores are unlikely to be replaced by any businesses at all — at most one in the case of Jewelers Row.
We talk a lot about residential displacement in Philadelphia and the fraying of community ties that go along with it, but much less attention has been paid to the loss of longtime shops and commercial clusters. As much as Philadelphia needs to refresh and expand its housing stock, it also needs the jobs, culture, and social networks that these independent heritage businesses provide.
Hoa Binh Plaza might seemly like an unlikely poster child for this cause. The shopping center, which sits on the northern half of the site, between 16th and Chadwick, has been around only since 1990, when its owners subdivided the cinder-block warehouse for retailers. South Philadelphia had been seeing an influx of Vietnamese immigrants, and they craved traditional products. Hoa Binh Plaza, which translates as Peace Plaza in Vietnamese, is said to be the first shopping area outside of Chinatown to cater to Asian immigrants. Over time, it has become a destination for plenty of non-Asians, too. Its Nam Son Bakery regularly makes the city’s Best-of lists for its banh mi sandwiches.
Last month, its fans, as well as the plaza’s nine businesses, were shocked to discover that the building’s owner had made a deal to sell the property to Streamline, a Philadelphia housing developer. The company plans to replace Hoa Binh’s building with 22 townhouses and 22 condo apartments, oriented north toward Carpenter Street. Steamline does face several procedural hurdles, including a Zoning Board hearing on Wednesday to request a variance to build a residential project on a site zoned for industry. Usually, though, that stuff ends up being a minor annoyance in Philadelphia.
What’s interesting is that the Planning Commission took a very public stand on the issue this week when it voted to oppose the variance. A lot of good reasons were cited: Streamline can hardly claim hardship as a reason for the variance, since the plaza is fully occupied. The commission also was troubled by the lack of retail in the current plan, although Streamline has promised to include space for shops in a second phase. Right now, the southern half of the site, which faces Washington Avenue, is being left vacant because Streamline does not control the key corner at 16th Street.
For the Planning Commission, the driving issue appears to be the loss of the plaza itself, a heritage retail business with great meaning in South Philadelphia’s Asian community. (A petition to save the plaza has garnered nearly 12,000 signatures.)
”We need to do a better job about commercial and cultural displacement,” acknowledged Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development. Her remarks were especially notable given the commission’s reluctance to get involved on Jewelers Row. (To be fair, that project did not require a variance.)
What the commission seems to appreciate now is that Hoa Binh Plaza and Jewelers Row aren’t merely places to shop; they’re also interconnected economic ecosystems. As interesting as the architecture on Jewelers Row is, it’s probably even more significant as a manufacturing hub. The floors above the stores are packed with tiny workshops that employ dozens, if not hundreds, of people.
Something similar can be seen at Hoa Binh, which is stuffed with Vietnamese and Chinese businesses supplying just about every necessity. Nam Son Bakery buys its raw materials at the Sieu Thi Big 8 supermarket, bakery owner Thomas Hinnson told me. Customers at Sieu Thi, in turn, carry their purchases down the hall to the travel agent, so they can be packed and shipped to family members in their home countries.
Hinnson estimates that more than 50 people work at the plaza. What happens to those jobs when Streamline replaces the shopping center with housing? Relocating a business is not easy, especially for owners who operate on razor-thin margins. “I got an estimate for dismantling and moving my kitchen — $50-$60,000,” he said. “I can’t afford that.”
Sieu Thi may be even worse off, owner Xing Zhou told me. The supermarket has a huge space, with room for a small restaurant and a traditional shrine, and it will be hard to find an equivalent footprint elsewhere. Zhou bought the business just 18 months ago and has more than $1 million worth of products on the shelves. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “I don’t even have a lease.” None of Hoa Binh’s businesses do.
What makes commercial gentrification so difficult is that, overall, housing construction is a good thing for Philadelphia.
The problem is that not everything can be housing. Beyond the need to enliven our streets with shops and restaurants — especially when America’s Main Streets are facing a retail apocalypse — those businesses provide employment and public spaces for residents to come together, what sociologist Roy Oldenburg dubbed “third places.” Unlike people who live in the tax-abated houses, those workers and businesses will contribute to the city’s coffers. Even if you accept that new residents will eventually pay their share, it’s not clear Philadelphia comes out ahead when it sacrifices its architectural and retail patrimony for new construction.
Given that Philadelphia can hardly preserve its architectural heritage these days, what hope is there that it might protect its retail heritage? Buildings, at least, can be given new uses when the original function becomes obsolete. But retail is dependent on individuals, particularly ones who are willing to work 12-hour days. That’s one reason so many small shops are run by immigrants.
It’s not hopeless. San Francisco has been exploring ways of protecting heritage retail from the onslaught of high-priced development. In 2015, city voters approved a fund to subsidize qualified heritage businesses to offset rising rents. Small, independent businesses often find it difficult to lease space in new buildings because they can’t meet the strict credit requirements. Those spaces end up going to a small group of chain stores, as they did at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Square. Such a fund has the potential to even the playing field.
Philadelphia’s Commerce Department already runs a successful storefront-improvement program, which gives grants to store owners who fix up their properties. The program is transforming Torresdale Avenue in Tacony and Chelten Avenue in Germantown. When you consider how much money was sunk into salvaging the PES refinery, or subsidizing high-end housing through the tax abatement, creating a Philadelphia fund to keep our heritage shops going doesn’t sound so far-fetched.