In Hyattsville, a Creative Impulse

Hyattsville is
Hyattsville is "a very quaint small town that just happens to be next to a big city," says planner Amy Neugebauer, indicating a house she bought. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 9, 2006

When dancer Rasta Thomas saw the sign "Arts District Hyattsville" as he was driving home to Riverdale recently, he did a double take.

"The word 'arts' really caught my eye," said Thomas, who stars in the touring company of the Billy Joel-Twyla Tharp musical "Movin' Out" and also dances with the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

A huge muddy lot dotted with bulldozers and earthmovers, the site marked by the sign doesn't look like much now, but by summer, the first of 350 new brick rowhouses with corrugated sheet-metal accents are slated to be ready for residents. When complete, Arts District Hyattsville, a new development by Bethesda-based EYA, will straddle Route 1 and include 100 to 200 condominiums and 13 "live-work" homes, in which residents will set up shop in the downstairs of their rowhouses and live upstairs.

Thomas purchased a rowhouse and hopes to move in by early 2008. He is happy that he has a small role in revitalizing the run-down Route 1 corridor, today populated primarily by shuttered buildings and used-car lots.

"I believe in what Route 1 could be," he said. "A lot of areas are lagging, but this has a lot of potential."

Hyattsville sits at the north end of the Prince George's County Gateway Arts District, which stretches along Route 1, also known as Rhode Island and Baltimore avenues depending on location, from near the District line in Mount Rainier through Brentwood and North Brentwood.

Developers of the district envision it as a focal point for a variety of arts and as an area where artists will choose to live and work. Already, there are several apartment buildings in Mount Rainier for artists.

"The city of Hyattsville has been the home for many artists and musicians -- as well as other talented residents -- who like our diversity our older neighborhoods, and the easy Metro access to Washington," Mayor William F. Gardiner said in an e-mail interview.

"The Arts District helps us attract more artists and develop arts-related venues, as well as market the city to people who might not have heard about us otherwise," he said.

New residential development across the city could add as many as 4,000 new residents to the current population of about 17,000 over the next three to five years, Gardiner predicted. Combined with new stores and restaurants, Hyattsville is undergoing a renaissance, Gardiner said.

To reflect that, in October the city adopted a new logo, which mixes historic buildings and new construction, and the slogan: "A World Within Walking Distance."

It's a very different world than was portrayed on the ABC show "Commander in Chief" just days before Arts District Hyattsville started selling its rowhouses in April. The show depicted its star Geena Davis getting out of a car in front of a restaurant advertising chitterlings and pork chops and erroneously cited the city as having had 11 murders in the past six months. There were two within city limits in 2005 and two so far this year.

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