In Hyattsville, a Creative Impulse

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.

Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corp. and former Hyattsville City Council president, says the city needs the financial boost it can get from the arts district.

"There is a need for redevelopment because of the simple fact that there is a need for tax revenue," he said. "The type of investment we're seeing in Hyattsville is going to improve everyone's quality of life."

While residents don't have to be artists to live in Arts District Hyattsville, there will be public art created by local artists throughout the development. A gallery is slated to be part of the renovated Lustine showroom, a 1950s-era building of soaring curved glass walls that has been abandoned for years. It will become a community center for the development.

The community will also include a swimming pool, bike trail and fitness center.

More than 60 of the rowhouses, priced from the low $400s to the upper $600s, have been sold. About 15 buyers camped out overnight to be first in line when the houses went on the market last spring.

"We didn't want Old Town Alexandria, we didn't want D.C, we wanted something unique to Hyattsville," said Aakash Thakkar, the EYA executive in charge of the project. "As Silver Spring's rents climb with all the development, people are getting priced out. People can't afford the exorbitant prices on U Street. We believe we're really an alternative."

In addition to retail space that is part of the development, the 13 live-work units, which have all been sold, will house such businesses as art galleries and a coffee and pastry shop.

A few blocks down Route 1 from Arts District Hyattsville, the city's old municipal building has been demolished to make way for Renaissance Square, a 44-unit apartment building for low- and moderate-income artists. It is being developed by the nonprofit Housing Initiative Partnership, which created a similar building in Mount Rainier in 2003.

While the Renaissance Square apartments will be for artists, the building will not include studio space.

"What we've discovered is that artists can usually afford cheap studio space. What artists can't afford is housing," said Mosi Harrington, executive director of the partnership.

The building, scheduled to open next December, will have several small workrooms and a high-ventilation room for artists working with volatile substances. A room with computers loaded with graphics software, a music practice room and a small gallery space are also part of the project.

Renaissance Square will have a number of environmentally conscious features, including Marmoleum flooring (a non-vinyl kind of linoleum made from linseed oil, cork, limestone and other materials), siding made with cement rather than vinyl and a partially green roof, on which plants will grow to absorb heat and water runoff.

The changes along Route 1 are welcome news to Mike Franklin, owner of Franklin's, an amalgam of brew pub, restaurant, grocer and general store.

"This sends a subliminal message to people driving through on Route 1 that Hyattsville is not down and out," he said.

Franklin opened his Route 1 business 12 years ago and has lived in Hyattsville for 17 years. In that time, not a lot has changed, he said. And he doesn't expect development to alter much of Hyattsville's historic district of Victorians, Sears bungalows and Arts and Crafts houses located away from the roar of Route 1 traffic.

"My feeling is, the people [in the new developments] really won't feel like they live in Hyattsville. Their center of gravity will be different," he said.

Even more new residents are expected at developments near the Prince George's Plaza Metro station on East West Highway, less than a mile from the arts district. A dormitory serving local universities opened in August, with room for 910 students, in a project still primarily under construction called University Town Center.

Within that development, a 112-unit condominium building called One Independence Plaza, with units selling from the $200s to the $490s, is scheduled to open in May. Lofts 22, consisting of 22 luxury two-story condos from the low $400s to more than $700,000, is expected to open next fall. A third condo building is also planned.

Nearby, a new 260-unit apartment building called Mosaic at Metro is also scheduled to open next fall. Most apartments will have two bedrooms, and there will be some live-work spaces.

The City of Hyattsville's community development manager, Amy Neugebauer, who currently lives in the Van Ness area of the District, recently purchased one of EYA's rowhouses with her husband.

"We liked the fact that it wasn't a cookie-cutter development. It feels like a place we can be part of a community," said Neugebauer, whose first day on the job in February coincided with the beginning of work on the Arts District Hyattsville project. "I felt it was a sign of things to come," she said.

Neugebauer wrote her master's thesis on the topic of arts districts, asking whether the designation in a growing number of communities around the country was just hype. For some, she said it seemed to be just a marketing tool. But not in Hyattsville, she maintains.

"The impetus for this arts district was driven by the citizens and artists themselves and has generated excitement and momentum," she said. "People are very dedicated to Hyattsville. They perceive it to be a very quaint small town that just happens to be next to a big city."

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