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Philly’s first Vietnamese plaza might be turned into townhouses — but not without a fight

“They want me to move the business, but where am I supposed to go, if this is where I’m supposed to be?”

A sign to save Hoa Binh Plaza sits in Huong Tram restaurant at the end of a rally in support of saving the plaza on Tuesday evening, June 25, 2019. The plaza is reportedly being bought by a developer, to be replaced with 44 residential units.
A sign to save Hoa Binh Plaza sits in Huong Tram restaurant at the end of a rally in support of saving the plaza on Tuesday evening, June 25, 2019. The plaza is reportedly being bought by a developer, to be replaced with 44 residential units.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

When Ngan Thi Vo returned to her South Philly store in Hoa Binh Plaza in early May after spending three weeks at the hospital with her husband following his surgery, she was shocked to discover that the plaza had been sold in her absence. Vo learned the news from her daughter who, like many other business owners in the plaza, had read the news online.

“I lost feeling in my hands,” Vo, whose family has been selling international calling cards and lottery tickets in the plaza since it opened in 1990, said through a translator. “They got really, really cold. I was reeling.”

Vo eventually approached the plaza owners, My Hue Lam and Tuan Hai Ngo, to get more information. She said they refused to talk to her, and she left feeling humiliated. She returned home and cried for a whole night.

“I can speak Viet, but not English very well,” she said. “They want me to move the business, but where am I supposed to go, if this is where I’m supposed to be?”

Located at 16th Street and Washington Avenue, Hoa Binh Plaza, or Peace Plaza, has been a landmark for South Philly’s Asian American community — specifically the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Chinese — for decades. Hoa Binh, which was the first Southeast Asian plaza in the Philadelphia area, contains the Sieu Thi Big 8 grocery store and Nam Son Bakery, a beloved spot for banh mis made with freshly baked bread.

The plaza has been sold to a local development company called Streamline, which has said it plans to demolish the plaza to build 44 new homes. It will include a mix of single-family townhouses with garages and multi-family condos.

After news broke of the sale, an online petition to save the plaza was launched. It has collected nearly 10,000 signatures so far. Streamline could not immediately be reached for comment.

On Tuesday evening, Vo joined other business owners at a rally in Huong Tram, a Vietnamese restaurant at the plaza since its inception. The rally was organized by VietLead, an organization focused on building intergenerational relationships in the Vietnamese community, to give the business owners a chance to make their case to City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the 2nd District. About 100 supporters showed up to help make posters and snack on spring rolls provided by Toan Vuong, who owns the restaurant.

“This plaza has always been here for Asian Americans as a cultural institution,” said Ken Hung, who has lived in Philadelphia for almost 25 years. He showed up to the rally with his wife, who is affiliated with Asian Americans United, and his two young daughters. “It’s the Italian Market for the Asian community. It’s the first stop for immigrants, and it’s seen so many different waves of Asians.”

The proposed demolition of the plaza follows the replacing of commercial and industrial buildings with residential areas on Washington Avenue west of Broad Street. The 19146 zip code, which contains Graduate Hospital and most of Point Breeze, was named as the eighth most gentrified zip code in the country since 2000 in a study last year by RentCafe.

The property is under contract, but the business owners are hoping that a July 24 hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which has the final say over the city’s land-use issues, will go in their favor. For them, the best-case scenario is that the board rejects changing the plaza’s use from commercial to residential.

“They say that this development is supposed to improve the city, but how many people are each of the houses going to help?” Vo said. “One or two? A family? But that doesn’t compare to the amount of people this plaza serves.”

Xing Zhou took over the Sieu Thi Big 8 grocery store about 18 months ago from the previous owner, who had owned it for about 16 years. When he found out that the plaza was closing, Zhou went to confront the plaza owners, who he said refused to speak with him.

Zhou said he is particularly frustrated because he’s lost 30 percent to 40 percent of his sales since a lot of customers aren’t sure if he’s still open. He’s also worried about what will happen to his 20 employees if the store is forced to close. Zhou has no plans to relocate — he said the machines and inventory would cost too much to move.

“This place is history,” he said. “Our parents and grandparents moved to America because it’s the ‘freedom country,’ and so we can achieve anything we want, including our dreams of being a small-business owner. If the developers decide to build houses here, our culture and history will be forever gone from the city and community.”

Sarun Chan, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, showed up to the rally Tuesday evening to show solidarity with the Vietnamese community. He said the issue at hand was “more than just about a plaza,” and touched on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“We start out with this plaza, and what happens? We keep pushing and pushing and pushing,” Chan said. “Where are we going to go? Where are we going to buy our own food? Where can we enjoy our family memories? There are memories to be had here, and it’s sad that it’s going to be in the past.”

At the end of the rally, Johnson spoke to the business owners and community members. He said he grew up two blocks away from the plaza and that his grandmother used to shop at the supermarkets. Johnson also told the business owners that he was not aware that they were against the sale.

“This evening gave me some real firsthand knowledge of the process and lack of transparency,” he said. “I don’t see how I could be supportive of this, outright evicting all the tenants in good faith. You have my commitment that I’ll walk with you through this process.”

Johnson said he would meet with the developer to get a better understanding of whether all the units will be dedicated to residential. He also said he would reach out to the South of South Neighborhood Association, which makes recommendations on the neighborhood’s projects, to get its perspective and understand why it voted unanimously in favor of Streamline’s development plans. (It did not immediately return a request for comment.)

Tears streamed down Vo’s face as she listened to Johnson speak.

“At the end of the day, this plaza was established by Viet people,” she said. “It brought families together from all of the states — New Jersey, Delaware. People have memories coming here, and losing that would be like losing our roots.”