Where We Live: Woodridge


WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: Trees line the streets of Woodridge, adding to the suburban atmosphere of this Northeast Washington, D.C. neighborhood, January 18, 2012. The neighborhood is home to many African American retirees, mostly former government employees. (Photo by Vanessa Small/The Washington Post) (Vanessa Small/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Vanessa Small
Reporter January 19, 2012

There’s nothing particularly special about the new dog park in Woodridge. Tucked between the neighborhood pool and the community center, it’s an expanse of rough granite surrounded by a low black fence. Unassuming. Average. But quite possibly the most vivid illustration of another Northeast neighborhood transforming — albeit more slowly than some others.

More and more young professionals looking to escape rising rents while keeping a D.C. address have stumbled upon the quiet community and discovered its suburban flavor.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University. View Archive

Although she has lived in the District since 2002, Daniella Gibbs Leger had never heard of Woodridge before moving to the neighborhood, which borders Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

Leger, 36, and her husband, Matthew, 38, thought Northern Virginia was the only place they’d be able to become homeowners and kiss their Capitol Hill rent goodbye without breaking their bank accounts. But one day her real estate agent took her to an unfamiliar Northeast neighborhood — driving her through the bungalows, farmhouses and Colonial-style homes that blanket the community’s rolling hills and tree-lined streets.

“I couldn’t believe these cute detached homes with yards and porches and well-manicured lawns and gardens. It wasn’t anything I was expecting to see in that neighborhood,” said Leger, a nonprofit executive who now grows tomatoes in the yard of their three-bedroom Woodridge house.

“I love the fact that it’s like living in the suburbs but you get the convenience of living in the city,” she said.

The suburban vibe in many parts of the community harks back to its emergence as subdivision in the early 1900s.

It remained a region of woodlands and farms even as downtown Washington began to develop. The tree-filled hills and ridges — perhaps the inspiration for the community’s name — had made it the ideal place for two forts to defend the nation’s capital during the Civil War.

The name of one street in Woodridge, Mills Avenue, pays homage to the home and studio of Clark Mills, the the early-1800s sculptor of the equestrian statues of George Washington in Washington Circle and Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the neighborhood acquired its current borders: Eastern Avenue, Michigan Avenue, 18th Street, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.

Desegregation laws attracted an influx of African Americans to the neighborhood after World War II. Their children, many of whom are now retired government employees, make up a sizable portion of the current population.

In the late 1990s, the coffeehouse-going, cellphone-toting, dog-walking set rushed into neighboring Brookland — but not as quickly to Woodridge.

“The Woodridge train hasn’t quite taken off,” said real estate agent Lindsay Dreyer, owner of City Chic Real Estate. “People love the houses, but the location isn’t ideal for them,” she said, because the nearest grocery store and Metro station are at least two miles away.

But some are willing to make the sacrifice, she added, because of Woodridge’s greatest attraction for prospective buyers: affordability.

It’s what brought Nora Wheatley and her family from Arlington County.

“We were looking for more house for our money,” said Wheatley, an executive secretary at the Federal Election Commission. They moved to Woodridge in 2004 after visiting a friend living in the area. “We were so pleasantly surprised that there were such beautiful homes in Washington, D.C., with grass and a back yard.”

The average home price is $276,719, down from $320,851 in 2008. The average sale price last year in neighboring Brookland was $345,263.

“It’s like living in Cleveland Park Northwest, but for a third of the price,” said Dreyer, who added that the average home in Cleveland Park is $733,489.”

But you don’t see many for-sale signs hanging in the front yards. The neighborhood had only about 100 home sales last year.

Though Woodridge Civic Association President Anthony Hood says he regularly receives phone calls from people expressing interest in the neighborhood, he adds: “There’s not a lot of moving in and out,” Hood said. For that reason, he describes the neighborhood in three words: “stable, consistent and predictable.”

The affordability that most residents boast has also attracted investors looking for a quick profit, as shown by the homes currently on the market with refurbished insides.

But there isn’t nearly as much investment in Woodridge as in its denser neighbors, Capitol Hill North, the Atlas District and Trinidad, which are, as a result, experiencing more rapid appreciation.

Many residents attribute the low sales activity to the strip of dark, metal-cased storefronts along the main artery that cuts through the community, Rhode Island Avenue.

“It’s like a ghost town,” said longtime resident Carol Fleming, a retired community supervision officer. The only visits she would make to the Rhode Island strip were to get her hair done. The businesses along the busy, wide road are mostly salons, storefront churches and a few liquor stores. Residents praise the subs at Carl’s Foods, one of the few eateries on the strip, but it closes before 5 p.m.

The lackluster business presence frustrated one newcomer, lawyer Stephanie Liotta Atkinson, into action. She and her partner moved into their Woodridge bungalow in 2010 after outgrowing their one-bedroom brownstone condominium in Dupont Circle.

“When driving along Rhode Island Avenue, it looks uncared for,” she said. “But it doesn’t reflect the people living in the neighborhood,” whom she describes as welcoming.

So she galvanized a few neighbors, creating the Friends of Rhode Island Avenue, an organization that wants to revitalize the community by attracting businesses such as pet-food stores, coffee shops, banks, sit-down restaurants, curbside cafes, dry cleaners and entertainment attractions.

In the meantime, as the organization courts developers, other residents have come together to build community amenities such as the Langdon Dog Park in the heart of Woodridge. It was started by residents, most of whom moved into Woodridge or neighboring communities in the past 10 years.

“I would say Woodridge is being shaped today by those who participate, engage and express interest,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Corey Griffin, whose constituency includes parts of Woodridge.

A new brewery, DC Brau on Bladensburg Road, attracts residents on the weekends with beer tastings, tours and barbecue. Plans to refurbish the community center and the Woodridge Neighborhood Library have also stirred excitement.

“Woodridge is a community that has a varied past but an evolving future,” Griffin said.

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