When the rains came again last week, the ceilings in the Eden Center shopping mall started to leak again, water seeped from the walls again, and sewage backed up into the kitchens of the mall’s popular restaurants and cafes — again. As Suong Nguyen talked about the difficulty of keeping her restaurant clean and dry, a large wet ceiling tile crashed down on a table next to her.
The once bustling Eden Center in Falls Church has long been an economic and cultural haven for the Washington area’s estimated 70,000 Vietnamese Americans, and it is believed to be the largest Vietnamese commercial center on the East Coast. It has preserved the heritage of South Vietnam from before the communist takeover in 1975 and is a smorgasbord destination for food lovers around the region.
Now the smorgasbord is shriveling up. In addition to water and sewage problems, merchants say air circulation in the mall is so poor that a buildup of pressure can make opening exterior doors difficult. Engineers say that the subterranean spaces are structurally unsound, and tenants say a lack of trash compactors contributes to overflowing bins and a stench that permeates the mall’s stale air.
“Every time there is rain, the water comes in from the floor and leaks from the ceiling,” said Nguyen, who has owned her small restaurant, BC Saigon, for 17 years. “I change the ceiling tiles every two years. My store is next to the trash can outside. I have a problem when customers sit inside. They can smell it.”
More than a dozen tenants have sued Eden Center, which is owned by former personal-injury lawyers Douglas and Norman Ebenstein of Boca Raton, Fla., over conditions at the mall, but leases signed years ago by immigrant tenants apparently insulate the landlords from having to do any repairs.
“I use the term exploitation,” said former congressman Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-La.), a Vietnamese American who once lived in Falls Church and patronized Eden Center’s restaurants. “The landlord is using the inability of people to speak English to really exploit them, to basically rob these people of their hard-earned money.”
Douglas Ebenstein, who lists himself on Web sites as the president of Eden Center Inc., did not return messages seeking comment. He and his father once operated the largest personal-injury law firm in Connecticut, but they lost their law licenses in the early 1990s and moved to Florida after numerous allegations of misconduct and mistreatment of clients.
Alan B. Frank, the company’s general counsel and the local manager of the mall, insisted that Eden Center is well maintained and that the tenants’ complaints are overblown. He strongly disputed claims that the mall took advantage of non-English-speaking immigrants.
“We would not enter into a lease with someone who’s not proficient in English,” he said, adding that the “tenants are commercial business people. They do business on a daily basis in the Washington, D.C., community.”
Tenants’ complaints about conditions at Eden Center begin with a pothole-filled parking lot that they say doesn’t have enough spaces for 120 merchants.
Christopher Pham recently closed Wish Diamond and Fine Jewelry after 17 years. “My business is totally destroyed by the condition of the mall,” he said. Customers complained about the poor air quality, the trash outside the store and the odor from sewage. “The past 17 years, I’ve seen a lot of people go bankrupt,” Pham said.
Tenants are unhappy about the rents as well. The landlord charges rates much higher than for many comparable retail spaces in Northern Virginia and the District. And a number of the 120 spaces in the mall are now vacant.
Nhieu Nguyen, at Phung Hoang, for instance, said she pays $3,272 a month for 350 square feet, or $112 a square foot. Duyen Truong, who said operating the now-closed Asian Supermarket drove her to bankruptcy, said she was paying $128 a square foot.
Frank said Eden Center attracts customers from New York to Atlanta and tourists from Vietnam. He said tenants “had the opportunity to leave the center, but they decided to stay. The rents were fairly negotiated — and hard negotiations in many cases. They certainly understand what the rent is.”
The average retail rental rate in the Falls Church area is about $22 a square foot. The relatively new Shops at Spectrum on Broad Street in Falls Church, where the Mad Fox brewery is located, charges $35 a square foot. Several prime spaces are available in Georgetown for about $50 a square foot.
“For neighborhood and community shopping centers in Northern Virginia,” said Sandy Paul of Delta Associates, a commercial real estate research firm, “the average effective rent is $24.73. Rents of upwards of $100 per square foot are far, far above the norm.”
In February, Pham’s insurance company, the Hartford, told him it would not renew his coverage because “your operations are located in a building where the plumbing does not meet our update requirements.” Pham shut down.
Frank said that the plumbing and all aspects of the mall infrastructure had been repeatedly inspected by city code inspectors and insurance and mortgage company inspectors and that the complaints “just aren’t right.” He said that tenants’ employees cause sewage backups by dumping grease or trash down the drain and that some restaurants don’t use their air-intake systems properly. “We just deny that’s a problem.”
A number of Eden Center tenants traveled to Boca Raton in June to meet with Douglas Ebenstein and plead with him for changes. They said Ebenstein was more concerned about the pending litigation, which has to be conducted in Florida even though Eden Center is incorporated in Virginia and all the tenants are in Virginia.
“We just want you to fix the problem,” Due Tran, an attorney for the tenants, said he told Ebenstein. He said Ebenstein seemed sympathetic. Tran said he offered to drop the suit and forgo financial damages and attorney’s fees. “Just shake my hand and tell me right now you are going to fix this thing,” Tran said he told the landlord.
“He did shake my hand,” Tran said, “and nothing has happened.”
Binh Nguyen, who owned the now-closed V3 Lounge, and others at the meeting said Ebenstein told Tran that Eden Center was his family’s financial security, that “we have a 350-year plan for this.”
In 2012, 16 merchants filed suit in Arlington County Circuit Court over conditions at the mall. Eden Center Inc., represented by the Greenberg Traurig law firm, the second-largest firm in America, responded with a countersuit in Palm Beach County, Fla., demanding that the case be moved to Florida, as the tenants’ leases require, and accusing the plaintiffs of being delinquent on their rents. The suit is proceeding in Florida, with Cao’s law firm also representing the merchants, and the case’s arguments focused on Virginia law.
In response to the tenants’ suit, Eden Center pointed out the language of the leases signed by the tenants. “The Tenants each further agreed,” a management brief notes, “that the Landlord was and is under no obligation to make any repairs, alterations, or improvements to the leased premises at any time during the term of the Lease.”
Local commercial real estate brokers said a landlord putting all the costs and responsibilities on a tenant is bold but not unheard of. “But if that is what the landlord wrote in their lease,” said Patrick M. Kessler of KW Commercial, “and the tenants all agreed in writing to it . . . then that is what that particular and specific market will bear.”
Gioan Nguyen, a lawyer not involved in the suit, said “99 percent of the people who signed leases at Eden Center have no advice from a good counsel or Realtor. Whatever the landlord has written down, they sign.” Eden Center contends in court that the contracts are binding and legal under Virginia law.
Frank said that although many tenants are responsible for their own roofs, Eden Center is going to replace the roof over the entire mall. He also said the flooding in BC Saigon was caused by Suong Nguyen’s own air-conditioning unit.
Frank said some of the accusations were an attempt to influence the lawsuit in Florida. He said most businesses “do very well at Eden Center, but sometimes businesses don’t do well, and the owner looks for someone to blame.”
Binh Nguyen said his V3 nightclub succumbed to water and mold problems. He said an insurance adjuster’s investigation found that his plumbing problems had “been repaired with duct tape, plumbers putty and other methods of sealants and adhesives.” He said Eden Center responded to his complaints of mold by painting over it.
Frank said problems at V3 were caused by Binh Nguyen’s failure to keep it clean.
“We accepted the lease,” Nguyen, the head of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged. “But the landlord’s responsibility is to keep up the shopping center. The building is bad now. There’s no air return, period. The bad air is circulated. The customers no longer want to come here.”