Suitland's Chance to Make a Change
The change percolating in Suitland is an example of what is occurring in inner suburbs across the country, such as Silver Spring and Pasadena, Calif., said Michael Beyard, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a District-based not-for-profit research group. As development ripples outward from cities, people seeking modestly priced housing without a lengthy commute are gravitating to older, close-in suburbs. "The interest in urban revitalization has spread to suburban renewal," Beyard said.
But Suitland faces unusual hurdles, Beyard said. Inner suburbs that are revitalized tend to be spokes on a geographic hub of upscale development. Silver Spring, for example, is close to Bethesda, a center of commercial and residential growth, he said, and redevelopment has still taken a long time. Reversing years of decline, he said, is an arduous process.
Once a farming community, Suitland was named for Col. Samuel Taylor Suit, an entrepreneur who bought 800 acres after the Civil War and built a mansion where he entertained luminaries such as President Ulysses S. Grant. The Census Bureau moved from the District to new headquarters on the property in 1942, a migration that brought federal workers to Suitland's garden-style apartments and modest brick houses. Through the 1970s, census workers packed restaurants along Suitland Road such as Dino's, the China Sea and the Cedar Hill Inn.
"It was a middle-class neighborhood," said Darlene Gray, former president of the Suitland Business Association, whose family owned the inn for decades until selling it in 2000. "People who worked on the complex lived in the area. Business thrived. It worked."
Suitland, an integrated community, began to change in the 1970s as Prince George's underwent a demographic shift, with whites leaving for outlying counties and blacks moving in from the District. Census employees left their apartments for first homes in other areas and were replaced by other families, often poorer and headed by a single parent.
A turning point for many merchants came in 1983, when a chain-link fence topped by razor wire was erected around the federal complex to thwart car thieves. Over time, workers stopped leaving the complex, in part because it was inconvenient to walk around the fence and in part because they grew wary of a commercial strip where panhandlers and drug dealers loitered. "When you have a cyclone of barbed wire, you have a prison, a concentration camp. It's a place you don't want to be," Gray said.
A plan to revive Suitland was conceived in the mid-1990s by then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) as part of a broader program to boost older communities inside the Capital Beltway. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development turned over Manchester Square, a notorious housing complex, to the county. It is now the site of Windsor Crossing, a $45 million project built by a private developer, Stavrou Associates, in partnership with Prince George's.
Community leaders won a second, albeit cosmetic, victory when the chain-link fence surrounding the federal center was replaced in 1999 with a wrought-iron version.
Now the administration of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) is focused on acquiring the remaining units at Suitland Manor . Tommy Thompson, executive director of the county's Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project, said the complex will be empty and ready for a developer by next spring.
But it's unclear how the county will meet that timetable . Prince George's has spent nearly $10 million to buy 56 buildings at the complex. It has $2.4 million to purchase the remaining 84 properties, which are divided among many private owners. Jim Keary, a county spokesman, said Prince George's has "other possible sources of funds, if necessary." He declined to elaborate, citing continuing negotiations.
As part of the celebration of Windsor Crossing's opening, community leaders plan to reroute the annual summer parade from Suitland Manor to the complex, which includes a 6,500-square-foot community center and an outdoor swimming pool.
Alberto and Lorena Chavez said they expect to attend the festivities with their two young children. Alberto Chavez grew up in Arlington, and he wanted to stay there. He and his wife never imagined moving to a condo in Suitland with a sprawling living room and a fireplace.
But here they are.
"I still can't believe it," Lorena Chavez said, smiling as she wrapped an arm around a pillar outside their freshly painted front door.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Windsor Crossing replaced one of Suitland's most blighted complexes.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)