When the Capitol Heights Metro station opened in 1980, the new ride from Prince George’s County to the District was the talk of the town.
“Riding a Metro and getting off at L’Enfant Plaza was a big deal,” recalls Derrick L. Davis, 44, who grew up on Sisalbed Drive in Capitol Heights and now serves on the Prince George’s County Council.
The extension of the Blue Line into Prince George’s was a welcome link to the rest of the region — and a harbinger, locals hoped, of a burst of economic development.
Three decades later, Capitol Heights is still waiting for that boom.
The aging single-family homes and auto-repair shops just steps from the station are signs of how little Metro has brought to the town. Empty parcels with brown grass and tall weeds face the southern edge of the Metro station at Davey Street. Old Central Avenue, a vibrant main street during the 1960s, is now a struggling business district.
Even the county, which has pushed for development around its 15 Metro stations, has consigned Capitol Heights to the back burner, focusing the government’s efforts on New Carrollton and a handful of other transit sites that have proved more attractive to private-sector partners.
So just as it did more than 30 years ago, Capitol Heights is looking toward the District.
This time, though, it’s not a rail link to downtown Washington that is raising hopes. Rather, it’s a site just across the border where Wal-Mart plans to build a store that will be part of a 10-acre development with office, retail and residential space.
“If and when the Wal-Mart is developed, it will have a huge impact on the region,” said Jonathan Taylor, an economic development consultant for Capitol Heights. “We need to begin to look at opportunities that can be built around the Wal-Mart.”
For years, the Central Avenue corridor and its string of Metro stations have been seen as a well of untapped opportunities for Prince George’s. The county, though well known for its large black middle class, still lags behind Montgomery and Fairfax counties, and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has made economic development a priority, winning approval of a $50 million fund to spur investment.
The Central Avenue corridor is a piece of that effort, and the county’s planning department has been working on a blueprint for housing, retail and commercial spaces around the Blue Line stations at Largo Town Center, Morgan Boulevard, Addison Road and Capitol Heights.
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For years, county and local officials have talked about such plans for mixed-use development in Capitol Heights. None has materialized. The area’s lower income levels and its reputation as a hub for crime have made it harder to attract developers.
The town of about 4,300 people has a median household income of $58,393, below the county’s $71,260. About 10.7 percent of the Capitol Heights population live below the poverty level, compared with 7.9 percent countywide.
Capitol Heights and the surrounding area have one of the highest foreclosure rates in Prince George’s, which has more foreclosures than any other county in Maryland.
At Old Central and Southern avenues, where a welcome sign with the seal of the Town of Capitol Heights stands tall, there is one shuttered storefront gate after another on one block. A corner liquor store is the sole open business.
Town officials say they struggle to hire enough police officers and fix roads. Groups like Mission of Love Charities, at Old Central Avenue, have seen a significant jump in requests for help with food, clothes and housing.
Wayne Marable, owner of Rosebud’s BBQ on Old Central Avenue, said he hopes the revitalization effort taking place on the District side will happen in Capitol Heights.
“I know it requires planning and time, but they have been talking about this for years and years and years,” said Marable, who after 11 years running the restaurant now opens it only two days a week. “We would all benefit from having the whole corridor redone. I am hoping at some point some businesses would come into the area, because I feel it would generate more business for all of us.”
Planners say the prospect of the Wal-Mart may spur growth that would bring in new revenue. The store is expected to add 300 permanent jobs. With a pharmacy and a full grocery selection, it would give residents another option in a corridor known as a food desert.
“There could be some real good synergy from what they are doing and what we are trying to do in terms of bringing new residents,” said Vanessa C. Akins, division chief with the Prince George’s Planning Department.
The 130,000-square-foot Wal-Mart planned at 58th Street on the north side of East Capitol Street is one of six Wal-Marts planned in the District. Part of a larger development known as Capitol Gateway Marketplace, it would be in an area redeveloped into a mixed-income neighborhood.
But capitalizing on the project while not cannibalizing businesses already serving the Capitol Heights community is not a simple proposition.
Addison Plaza, on Central Avenue just a mile into the county, has a Safeway, a CVS and a few fast-food eateries.
Taylor, the consultant for the town, said that planning and coordination are important and that the county should take a leading role in working with Capitol Heights to make the most of the Wal-Mart.
“If the District and the developer see worth in that site, right across the street, why don’t they see worth on this side of the street?” he asked.
But without the political will, it’s not going to happen, Taylor said. “It is not there right now.”
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Kathy McCoy, 54, a District resident who has lived near the county line most of her life, said she often drives to other parts of Prince George’s and to Montgomery to shop.
“This area is somewhat forgotten,” McCoy said as she left the Addison Plaza Safeway with a carton of eggs. “It would be nice if they could bring a little more variety.”
Some area residents say they hope new development would not only increase shopping options but also help clean up blighted property, create jobs and improve public safety.
“We have been waiting for years for anything that would give this area a different face, a different look,” said Elsie Williams, a retired nursing assistant who has lived in the Capitol Heights area since 1975.
“People talk about this being the ’hood,” said Williams, 72. “I have seen changes . . . in other parts of the county, and I keep thinking that they are just taking their time going around.”
New development in Prince George’s has mostly taken place outside the Capital Beltway, while the county has lagged behind on construction around the Metro.
“In Prince George’s County, when you leave the Metro station, you go into a parking lot, whereas in other counties, you go straight into a shopping center,” said James Wright, a daily Metro user who lives in nearby Seat Pleasant and is president of the Seat Pleasant Citizens Association. “People are kind of tired of being relegated to second-class status in terms of economicdevelopment projects.”
The county is prioritizing areas including New Carrollton, which has drawn interest and where infrastructure improvements are being made. New Carrollton is where the easternmost stop of the proposed Purple Line light rail project is expected to be built.
Other areas the county is focusing on are around the Naylor Road and Branch Avenue Metro stations and around the Laurel MARC train station. The county is looking to add Largo Town Center Metro to that priority list.
Aubrey D. Thagard, a top aide to Baker, said that even though Capitol Heights hasn’t made the priority list, the county still hopes the town will benefit from the planned Wal-Mart.
Marnitta King, 35, a member of the Capitol Heights Council who owns property the town wants to purchase for development, said the basic problems need to be addressed first.
“Yes, we want the development,” King said. “The reality is that we don’t have enough money. . . . We want to be able to fix all the streets, but we can do only two or three streets a year. There are all these problems, and the only thing that the county remotely cares about is the Metro station.”
No one offers a timeline for new development in Capitol Heights.
Davis said that the council is working with planning officials to address impediments and is considering legislation that would help spur growth in Capitol Heights and elsewhere. The potential is there, he said.
“But we have gotten stuck in plan mode. . . . We have had a whole lot of planning, and now it is time to do.”