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City Heights Commercial Plaza Could See Multimillion-Dollar Renovation

Photo caption: The front of the Vien-Dong Supermarket in City Heights at University Avenue a...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

The front of the Vien-Dong Supermarket in City Heights at University Avenue and 54th Street, Aug. 30, 2016.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

An outdated commercial center in City Heights could receive millions of dollars in renovations through a government program that incentivizes investment in low-income communities.

The city redevelopment nonprofit Civic San Diego this month announced that it would allocate federal tax credits to help fund the proposed $22 million purchase and overhaul of the plaza at University Avenue and 54th Street.

Nicholas Tran, manager of the Vien-Dong Supermarket located in the shopping center, said he applied for the agency's New Markets Tax Credit program to buy the entire commercial facility and make significant upgrades.

“We’re going to give it a facelift. We’re going to build a new parking structure. We’re going to build something that’s going to be monumental. You’re going to know that, ‘Oh, we’re in City Heights,'" said Tran, whose late father opened the store in 1984.

The plan would enlarge the grocery store, which has expanded into neighboring storefronts over the past three decades, Tran said.

Michael Lengyel, investment and finance development manager for Civic San Diego, said the tax credit program helps the agency bring investors, such as banks, to finance projects in underserved areas.

"We actually provide the tax credits to the bank and they make equity investment in (Civic San Diego), so they actually provide cash to Civic in exchange for these tax credits," Lengyel said.

The agency then provides a below-market loan to projects that have "strong community benefits," he added.

The Copley-Price YMCA was a previous recipient.

The Vien-Dong Supermarket provides inexpensive, healthy foods for the low-income community, and Lengyel said investments in the rundown commercial center will ensure that need continues to be met.

A Civic San Diego advisory board reviewed the project on Aug. 22 and recommended a new markets tax credit investment of up to $22 million. That will go toward the $13.5 million cost of purchasing the plaza, $5.5 million in upgrades, including a parking structure, new fence, building renovations and the grocery store expansion, and cover closing costs and fees, Lengyel said.

The plan still has a few more hurdles to clear before it can move forward and construction can begin in summer 2017. Civic San Diego has only $5.5 million in tax credits available, but it's expecting to receive more from the U.S. Department of the Treasury in an upcoming round of funding. Additionally, Tran said a bank has not yet been secured to provide the loan.

Still, Tran is optimistic the plan will receive the green light.

He said his father, who died in July, considered the renovations as a way to pay back the community for supporting his family business for more than 30 years.

The family had come to the San Diego area amid the Vietnam War, arriving with little money and four young children. Tran's parents first opened a tiny Asian market in Linda Vista that they were worried wouldn't survive because of competition from big grocers nearby, but it quickly became popular among the community's immigrant population.

The Tran family now operates two locations: Vien-Dong Supermarket on University Avenue and World Foods Supermarket on El Cajon Boulevard.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the store on El Cajon Boulevard and clarify when the current Vien-Dong storefront opened.

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