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Renewal Spells Doom for Small Used Car Lots in Pr. George's

County Sees Route 1 Corridor as New Arts District

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2003; Page A01

The forest-green 1994 Buick LeSabre with whitewalls is still reliable at 100,008 miles, the salesman said. It sits on the lot next to a maroon Toyota Supra with peeling paint and a rusting gold Camry that's seen better days. Like the other cars parked on the gravel patch on Hyattsville's main drag, none of them sells for more than $5,000, the kind of bargain that Vernon Wolverton's customers have expected for 33 years.

Head north out of the District on U.S. Route 1 and you'll pass dozens of places like Wolverton's Suburban Motors. Nearly half the 97 licensed used-car dealers in Prince George's County do business on or around the 20-mile stretch from the District line to Laurel, a road once known as the Washington region's Car Alley. Over the decades, large new-car showrooms and secondhand dealers left for less-crowded suburbs. That left the small independent lots that cater to a local clientele -- a landscape like many sections of Route 1 between Key West and the Canadian border.


Tony Sia's Y2K Auto Sales in Prince George's County, at 23,000 square feet, is too small to remain in business under zoning that is about to take effect. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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Now, under a plan set in motion by county leaders three years ago, the car lots are about to be zoned out of existence. Beginning Sept. 1, it will be illegal for used-car lots smaller than 25,000 square feet to operate in the county, a limit that will force nearly all of the dealers on the highway to close. The untidy mix no longer fits with the county's image of itself as it attempts to attract more retailers and shoppers.

"Having a small used-car lot that has twinkly decorations and vehicles that are not in very good condition does not help to improve value of a commercial area," said Elaine Murphy, city administrator of Hyattsville, which has four such dealerships.

The measure was sponsored by Prince George's County Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), who champions a plan to recharge the business area north of the District line by turning it into an arts district.

"There is a need and a demand for selling used cars," Shapiro said, "but I don't think it is appropriate for them to be clustered on our primary commercial corridor . . . where we are focused on redevelopment and revitalization."

The goal of the $70 million Gateway Arts District is to draw more than 100 artists to Route 1 and transform 286 acres in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, Brentwood and North Brentwood into a neighborhood of studios and galleries -- building on some existing pockets of craftspeople who have taken advantage of affordable spaces near the city and the University of Maryland. The county -- which has handed out rehabilitation grants, fixed sidewalks and added landscaping -- last week opened the first major piece of the project, a $1.5 million renovated apartment building with 12 units for artists, at subsidized rents. Some other buildings in the area have been decked out in bright colors. One is the Magruder Flat Iron Building in Hyattsville, which last fall became home to a photo gallery and a craft store. At the suggestion of a county planner, it has been painted orange with a fat squiggly mustard-colored stripe.

There's local color a few miles north in Beltsville, too, but not the kind that the county wants anymore. Weathered flags from nations of the world flap around Y2K Auto Sales, a 23,000-square-foot cement lot on Route 1. Owner Tony Sia is the first to acknowledge that his faded banners and yellow sign aren't pretty, but it doesn't seem fair to him that his industry is being picked on for its lack of aesthetics. Eyeing a junkyard on the other side of the railroad track across the highway, Sia said: "You can't have one side nice."

Many of the dealers contend that they learned of the impending zoning change only recently, even though the county gave them three years to adjust. Inside the two-room trailer that serves as the office at Suburban Motors, salesman Jack Clay pointed to a certificate taped to the wood panel closet door. "Why would the state send me my license if I can't operate?" he said.

Dino Saglimbeni, who opened Dino's Used Cars and Rentals in Riverdale in 1977, said he dismissed the chatter about the new law he heard last year at an auto auction. "I thought the guy was just running his mouth," Saglimbeni said, shrugging his shoulders and tossing up his hands.

Told last week that the law had passed, Saglimbeni began calculating the size of his lot in his head. A small vein bulged in his neck, and he immediately called his lawyer and three neighboring used-car lot owners. He hopes that his business, which is stretched over three lots, might be just large enough to squeak by.

Cerdan Ladeira -- owner of Cardepot Auto Sales, a 19,000-square-foot lot cordoned off by a rusted metal fence -- said he gave the auction gossip more credence. Ladeira came home and called the Annapolis-based Maryland & Delaware Independent Automobile Dealers Association, a lobbying group for used-car dealers. He paid his membership dues and the group talked about hiring a lawyer, but it would have cost too much, said George N. Manis, the association's executive director.

Now, a year later, Ladeira said he had forgotten about the looming deadline. His lot is filled with more inventory than he can sell in a month. "I'm going to fight until the end," Ladeira said. "I'm going to stay until they take me out."

Some dealers have more actively opposed the law, seeing it as yet another blow to a business that never has enjoyed good public relations and has been recently battered by a glut of used cars and big discounts offered on new vehicles. Nationwide, the number of used-car dealers fell 4.6 percent last year to 52,100, according to a recent survey by the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association.


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