Promise of Whole Foods may be kick-starting development in Prince George’s town


A construction worker works in a storefront at the Douglas Development building in the Riverdale Historic District on June 20, 2013 in Riverdale, Md. A redevelopment is underway in the Riverdale Historic District with new tenants soon to occupy vacant shops. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
June 30, 2013

The paint is still fresh inside the building on Rhode Island Avenue, in the heart of Riverdale Park’s downtown. Empty for decades, the corner property now has a sign announcing the fall opening of a yoga studio.

Down the street, an old convenience store recently set up in a new space and remade it into a bustling shop, where people not only stop for coffee but often linger to chat with neighbors.

Local officials say the handful of investments made so far in this aging commercial district, long defined by weathered buildings, signal a coming revitalization. And driving the interest, they say, are the plans to build a Whole Foods (and an accompanying mixed-use development) and to make the town a stop on the proposed light-rail Purple Line.

For a decade, Riverdale Park has seen its larger neighbors experience steady growth.

To the south, Hyattsville has drawn nearly $1.8 billion in investment since 2005, with more than 1,200 new housing units and the opening of a Busboys and Poets restaurant and bookstore. College Park, to the north, has seen about $500 million in construction along Route 1, including nearly 3,500 student beds, 500 apartment units and a 50-room Best Western hotel that opened this year.

Riverdale Park has been trying to capitalize on that. It has invested in the town’s weekly farmers market and jazz nights at the Riversdale House Museum. And through a contentious planning process, the town of about 7,000 people has remained a steadfast advocate for the Whole Foods development.

“Riverdale Park’s time has arrived,” said Michael Herman, a lawyer in Prince George’s County and former Riverdale Park mayor. Most of the growth in the county in the past decade has been concentrated around Riverdale Park, Herman said.

The $250 million Whole Foods project, planned for a 37-acre site on the northwestern boundary of the town, calls for the construction of almost 1,000 units of ­multifamily housing, a 120-room hotel, 22,000 square feet of office space and about 168,000 square feet of retail.

The development, planned by the Washington-based Calvin Cafritz Enterprises, could bring in the type of density that officials say would boost local businesses.

“It is a good sign, it is absolutely a positive step,” said Paul Millstein, an executive with Douglas Development, which owns several properties in Riverdale Park. “You have to prove that business is open and things are doing well, you can’t just say it, you have to prove it, so the Cafritz development will prove that.”

That is especially important to the 1.6-square-mile town, where new commercial development has been scarce.

The town center, home to a MARC train station, has struggled for decades to attract and retain tenants. A few years ago, a plan to build a five-story building with more than 100 condominiums and commercial spaces fell through. Prospects of new tenants at storefronts across the commercial district slipped away with the shrinking economy.

The area, just off East-West Highway and Route 1, is now home to an empty building once occupied by a plumbing contractor.

A longtime bar and grill remains open in an aging building. A local church meets in a storefront, against the county’s zoning regulations. Some storefronts have been vacant years, others have sat empty for decades.

“These buildings got old and run-down, and they weren’t too attractive anymore,” said Jimmy Spiropoulos, who owns the Town Center Market.

Spiropoulos and his family, who have had businesses in Riverdale Park since 1988, invested $1.2 million to move their small convenience store from an adjacent old building into the building that had been vacant for about eight years.

When the business reopened last year, it brought popular wine and beer tastings and a spot where locals stop by for an afternoon coffee.

“I like to think that we started the change,” said Spiropoulos. “You look at this and say, ‘Hey, if they got it done, why can’t we get it done as well?’ ”

Foot traffic, rare here in years past, has picked up. The farmers market draws about 700 people to the town every Thursday afternoon. Neighbors who had never set foot in the Spiropoulos store are now frequent patrons.

Abdon Luna,74, a daily customer at the store, said the investment has made the town center area more inviting to local residents.

“This place was empty for years, and nobody had come up with an idea for a business like this one,” Luna said as he and his wife enjoyed a cup of coffee there on a recent afternoon. “This is a sign of progress. It is a pleasant place to be.”

The county and town are now putting resources into building on that change and attracting start-ups and small family businesses.

As part of the effort, the county, the town and the Washington-based Douglas Development have launched a contest in which businesses can compete for discounted rental space at 6220 Rhode Island Ave., a building that town leaders said has been vacant for most of the past quarter-century.

After recent renovations in the building, the developer has signed the first tenant, who will open a hot yoga studio there in the fall.

Chuck Rendelman, founder of Fro-Zen-Yo yogurt shops, said he is interested in opening a coffee shop there. And Donnell Long, owner and chef of the Old Town Inn in Upper Marlboro, is interested in the first-level space for a restaurant.

Mayor Vernon Archer said Riverdale Park hopes to build a vibrant downtown with restaurants, a coffee shop and maybe a gift shop at the railroad station.

“It is exciting to see some movement after so many years,” Archer said as he walked in front of the empty storefronts.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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