Vacant funeral home to get facelift as Mount Rainier revives gateway

March 7, 2012

Mount Rainier officials are hoping to brighten up a funeral home in the city — literally.

The vacant Dudley Funeral Home, at 3200 Rhode Island Ave., is part of a 33,000-square-foot property the city purchased in 2009. Officials say the three-story building is the first structure commuters from the District see when they enter the city, and it doesn’t reflect the energy of the arts-focused community.

As a result, officials announced a request for development proposals for the site. In the best-case scenario, they say, groundbreaking would be 2014.

“We want to transform it from vacancy to vibrancy,” said Brooke Kidd, executive director of Joe’s Movement Emporium, a performing arts center that has been involved in community beautification programs.

The city plans to renovate all of the vacant properties from 3200 to 3208 Rhode Island Avenue.

As part of the city’s second Better Block Project to revitalize the area, Mount Rainier would provide $4,000 that would go toward painting the funeral home building white and adding an artistic, multicultural design, which has been selected, on the sides that face Eastern and Rhode Island avenues.

Newton Square Apartments, across the street from the funeral home, also will be painted, and an art installation will be added at the entryway. The total project cost is $12,500, and Kidd has requested $4,000 from the Gateway Community Development Corp., $2,500 from the BB&T bank in the city and $2,000 from the Mount Rainier Business Association.

“It’s a very worthwhile project,” said Michael Gumpert, Gateway CDC’s executive director, who added the CDC will be providing at least $5,000 but is looking at contributing $10,000. “Rhode Island gets 26,000 cars a day that pass by the gateway and it’s really going to announce to people that they’ve really arrived at the Gateway Arts District.”

Joe’s and Gateway CDC are organizing this year’s Better Block Project. In April, a section of 34th Street was given a glimpse of its potential as vacant storefronts were replaced with art, murals were painted, outdoor cafe-style seats were set up at restaurants and local artists performed in a $15,000 endeavor.

Council member Brent Bolin (Ward 2) said Mount Rainier lacks a signature image to let people coming from the District know that they’ve entered the Gateway Arts District — an arts-based redevelopment collaboration between Brentwood, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and North Brentwood — and painting the funeral home would be a welcome change.

“We’re the gateway to the Gateway, and I think this will help to show we’re serious and that things are happening in the arts district,” Bolin said. “It’s cheaper than knocking [the funeral home] down.”

City Treasurer Vijay Manjani said leveling one building along the block in 2009 cost the city at least $40,000.

“We’re trying to have an economic breakthrough in the arts district,” said Michelle Darden Lee, a resident and business owner working with Joe’s on the project. “We want to have Better Block be a display of what our community can accomplish when we come together.”

City Manager Jeannelle Wallace questioned whether the city will spend money on a building that eventually will be demolished.

While understanding Wallace’s concerns, City Council members favor moving ahead with the proposal. The publicity, increase in foot traffic in the city and overall word of mouth for the enhancement effort alone make it a worthwhile endeavor, said council member Jimmy Tarlau (Ward 1).

Kidd said the painting is not so much a long-term plan, but instead a marketing effort that will have enormous impact to recognize and brand the Gateway Arts District.

“When people enter Mount Rainier, they’re not even aware it’s an arts district, and I’d like Rhode Island Avenue to reflect the creative community that lives here,” Kidd said.

Resident Pedro Briones, a former city council member, said enhancements are welcome but don’t address the main issue.

“It’s kind of like putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “Most of that old block needs to be razed. It drives me crazy that all this development is going on around us, and it feels like we’re in a holding pattern, but I’m glad to see the city keeps trying.”

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