By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Nearly 10 years ago, a group of Prince George's County residents teamed up with hopes of transforming four areas of vacant storefronts, used-car lots and seedy warehouses into a funky, eclectic community along Route 1.
The group coalesced around the artists who lived in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, North Brentwood and Brentwood, believing that interest in the arts could revitalize the area.
"We wanted to create a sense of place . . . to change the perception of the corridor," said Peter A. Shapiro, a former County Council member, who worked with the group. "There wasn't really a downtown, and we wanted a destination."
They wanted a mini-SoHo. But the two-mile stretch from Eastern Avenue to Madison Avenue, which the state designated as the Gateway Arts District in 2003, has been slow to change. Auto repair shops, industrial buildings and empty storefronts occupy prime real estate. Mounds of dirt and overgrown weeds sit behind a sign announcing that stores, lofts and restaurants are "coming soon" as part of a $150 million project being developed by the Bethesda-based firm EYA. The sign has sat by the side of the road for almost two years.
The Gateway Arts District has been slow to draw investors, in part, because of the county's long-standing difficulties in attracting development, said Kwasi Holman, chief executive officer of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp. And the economic downturn delayed the EYA project, the largest in the district, said Aakash Thakkar, the company's vice president of development. The EYA project plan includes 600 homes and 50,000 square feet of retail, but only 100 homes have been built.
"Arts districts evolve over decades, not years," said Holman, who worked for the District when the city began its revitalization of U Street.
Holman said it takes time to induce development in an area that investors have avoided. Some involved in the process say a complete transformation could take 20 years.
"Just look at the U Street corridor," Holman said. "We started things, then there were delays based on the economy, and now Busboys and Poets is there, and there's an active nightlife. I see that same transition eventually taking place in the Gateway Arts District."
But Nick Francis, the former director of the Gateway Arts District Community Development Corp., which formed a decade ago, acknowledged that the strip does not look "all that different" now.
"But if you look at the objective we had -- to strengthen artists and invest in the community -- that is happening. It's a different path, a different course," he said.
About 150 artists have moved into live/work spaces, and a handful of art galleries display the work of local artists. Some residents enjoy rooftop decks on rowhouses that cost more than a half-million dollars. A museum dedicated to African American history is being planned. Busboys and Poets, which will be an anchor for the second phase of EYA's housing and retail development, is scheduled to break ground next year for a restaurant and bookstore, Thakkar said.
Artists and businesses from other parts of the region have relocated work spaces and companies to the arts district. Some artists have even decided to live in subsidized artists housing created by the Housing Initiative Partnership, a Prince George's-based nonprofit developer.
Tim Tate, who owns the Washington Glass School, moved his operation to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse just off Route 1 in Mount Rainier about three years ago, after his building in Southeast Washington was displaced by the construction of the Nationals Park baseball stadium.
Tate said Mount Rainier has three things in its favor: housing affordability, proximity to the District and a collection of artists, all of which have allowed it to become a "serious artist community," drawing collectors, art lovers and students from across Washington.
"It's more of an arts destination," said Margaret Boozer of Red Dirt Studio. "People know about [the area]. It's not some scary place across the [Prince George's County] line."
Novie Trump, a sculptor from Northern Virginia who works in ceramics, opened a studio not far away from Tate's warehouse so she could be a part of the new community. "I could have built a studio out in the country and lived and worked by myself, but I chose this, where there are over 100 artists within a few square miles," she said.
Franklin's General Store and Brewery, which completed a $1.6 million expansion in 2002, is one of many restaurants and stores that display the work of local artists.
The first phase of EYA's development in 2008 included the restoration of the Lustine Chevrolet showroom into a community center, gym and space for artists to work and show their pieces. And ezStorage opened a 10,000-square-foot self-storage facility last year that includes studio space.
But Chris Brophy, who has lived in Hyattsville for 11 years and opened his Rhode Island Reds cafe a year ago, said he worries about the pace of the revitalization.
Brophy looks no farther than outside his front door to find the source of his frustration.
There is no sidewalk. There is little street lighting. A neighboring auto repair shop amasses junk. The conditions make his business appear unappealing to potential customers, he said.
Brophy has complained to Hyattsville officials, but they lay the burden on the county government, he said.
Alan Binstock, an architect who has lived in Mount Rainier for 20 years and was a leading proponent of the arts district, said he realizes that some efforts have fallen short.
For example, he said, among the businesses that have shut their doors in the past couple of years were two in line with the vision for the arts district: a bookstore and a coffee shop that became a showcase for nighttime spoken-word performances.
Binstock said the district needs more daytime customers to help sustain some of the businesses. Without foot traffic, their demise is almost certain, he said.
"Bringing in artists, just themselves, we need more than that," Binstock said. "We have a foundation started, but we have to move to the next step."