Nam Son Bakery is a cult landmark. Tucked into the Hoa Binh shopping plaza on 16th Street and Washington Avenue, the bakery is known for its delicious, cheap banh mi sandwiches and cosmically sweet iced coffee. Owner Thomas Sinnison is a former journalist and he has the gift of gab, keeping up a steady stream of conversation with his customers.
That’s how he learned that his bakery, the Sieu Thi Big 8 grocery store next door, and all the other shops in the Vietnamese-oriented plaza will soon be out of business and the mall demolished to make way for 44 new homes— one of several new residential projects replacing commercial and industrial buildings on Washington Avenue west of Broad Street.
“One girl comes in and doesn’t buy anything , she just says you hear anything about this--and she shows me a link,” said Sinnison, whose bakery looks out to a large surface parking lot. “I have no idea, the seller don’t say anything, the buyer don’t say anything. I hope the new owner cares about us a little bit when we are moving out. Because we lost everything.”
That new owner is a local development company called Streamline. The plan for the Hoa Binh Plaza includes a mix of single-family townhomes with built in parking garages, duplexes, and multi-family condos. Streamline vice president Steve Kosloski said the project is designed to appeal to the changing neighborhood's desire to limit competition for on-street parking while also keeping homes relatively affordable.
“It's just part of our mission statement as a company to provide higher-density affordable units for first time home buyers, young professionals, millennials,” said Kosloski. “That’s really our target market and who we feel are a good buyer segment that are contributing to the increase in population in a lot of these areas.”
The plan to replace the suburban-style strip mall with new homes geared towards young professionals reflects the changing nature of Washington Avenue. Lined with factory buildings, warehouses, and other industrial businesses, the wide commercial artery has long stood as a gritty border between the gentrified Graduate Hospital area and the Point Breeze neighborhood.
As residential demand spikes, some property owners, like Hoa Binh’s owners, My Hue Lam and Tuan Hai Ngo, are selling. Just a few blocks west, developer Ori Feibush’s company OCF Realty is building an even larger residential complex where the Frankford Chocolate Factory had stood since 1865.
Asked about what would become of the businesses in the shopping center, Kosloski indicated that it is not Streamline’s responsibility.
“They are all on month-to-month leases not long term leases in place, so it's going to be up to them to figure out where they are going to locate,” said Kosloski.
Hoa Binh Plaza opened in 1990, less than 20 years after South Philadelphia became a hub for South Vietnamese refugees. Back then, it was one of the only active commercial uses on the corridor. Without many other retail businesses or homes nearby to encourage foot traffic, it took a suburban-style form, with a surface parking lot where customers from other parts of the city could park.
As Center City grew more prosperous, first Graduate Hospital and then Point Breeze saw massive reinvestment and demographic change. Though Washington Avenue is still zoned for commercial and industrial uses because Councilman Kenyatta Johnson hasn’t updated the maps for the avenue, it is nonetheless slowly transforming. Sinnison said that while Streamline’s proposal will likely put him and other shop owners out of business, the redevelopment indicates progress for the larger community.
“The truth is I am not angry -- I take a loss but I think it's a good sign for our state and our city,” said Sinnison, who lives in Malvern. “I am still happy for the city… 20 years ago, this area was worse, now you can see it is safer every day. But I am sad because my business is falling apart.”
Streamline’s renderings show 22 single family homes, each with a garage underneath, and 22 condos in duplexes and multi-family buildings. A fifth of the condos will provide what Kosloski describes as “the affordability component,” with prices under $240,000, he said.
“It’s always a balancing act in front of these community groups, because half the people want affordable units and the other half want low density and one-to-one parking,” said Kosloski. “It’s really difficult to accomplish both of those in a market-rate project, so what we did was present a plan that provided a little bit of both.”
Streamline presented their plans to the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) in May. The community group’s zoning committee voted unanimously in favor of the project, although the organization will not officially issue a letter of support until after the June 4th Civic Design Review committee meeting on the project. After that, Streamline will seek relief from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Assuming the ZBA hearing goes well, and no one appeals a ruling, Streamline anticipates that they will break ground in about six months.
In the meantime, Hoa Binh’s occupants are in limbo. Workers and business owners interviewed by PlanPhilly said they learned of the probable impending demolition from customers or, in some cases, over the course of the interview.
Sinnson is a relative newcomer to the plaza, opening his bakery in 2012. He says he suspected that painful change was coming when his lease ended last summer, and the building owner switched him and many other business owners to a month-to-month lease.
Eventually, other retail uses could return to the plaza property. Streamline is still haggling over development rights for the neighboring land, where the shopping center’s parking lot is currently carved into two parcels.
Assuming Streamline settles with the adjacent property owner, Kosloski said the company wants to erect a mixed-use building with underground parking on the site, comparable to a smaller version of the neighboring Lincoln Square development on Washington at Broad Street. That development, done by the Alterra Property Group, contains 322 apartments, a Sprouts grocery store, a Target and other retailers.
“It's going to be some type of commercial mixed-use project similar to what Alterra did, although I don’t think it’ll be to that scale,” said Kosloski.
SOSNA’s David Zega said the community group liked what they saw of the project, especially its an abundance of street trees and green space.
“We are really trying to increase our tree canopy on Washington Avenue, and the parcel includes a walkway… and some greenery as well to help beautify the space,” said Zega.
As for Sinnison, he says he is unlikely to open a new bakery. It is hard to open a new small business in the city, and finding places to store all his heavy equipment while going through the uncertain permitting process would be too much. In the meantime, he’s just trying not to think about it.
“Every day I just try to wake up and go to work and see my customer,” said Sinnison. “If I think about how I lost everything I will not be able to work.”