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Projects aims to offer a preview of permanent makeover for Mount Rainier area

By Daniel Leaderman
The Gazette
Thursday, September 23, 2010; PG19

Mount Rainier officials and business owners envision transforming a city block littered with vacant storefronts into one with art galleries or cafes with outdoor seating, plants lining the sidewalks and musicians performing -- at least for a day.

"Imagine what could be," Jan Townshend, program manager for the Riverdale Park-based nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center, said at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Mount Rainier City Council. It would "show how you could create some really nice outdoor seating areas and performance spaces, and you could really get a lively street environment going."

Townshend proposes revitalizing a stretch of 34th Street reaching about 500 feet from the Rhode Island Avenue circle to just past Bunker Hill Road for a single day in April to show what the corridor could look like if renovated.

The area has a few stores and restaurants -- a pizza parlor, a food co-op -- but many empty storefronts.

Townshend said she got the idea from a YouTube video detailing a similar effort, the Better Block Project, put together last spring by residents of Oak Cliff, Texas.

"They had a similar problem with their commercial district: Some thriving businesses and some really good things happening, but also, because of the economic downturn, they had a lot of vacant properties," Townshend said.

Residents and artists volunteered and revamped one block for one day, she said. Existing businesses were redecorated, and a lane of the street was closed and filled with tables and chairs to make room for outdoor seating. Vacant storefronts were filled with art and furniture and converted into a gallery and a cafe.

The project cost about $1,000, and within a month, many of the vacant properties in Oak Cliff had been leased, she said.

"This is something I would urge and encourage the council to support as something to bring life to our area," Mayor Malinda Miles said. "I believe this is something we should do."

Townshend said the Neighborhood Design Center had set a target date of April 9 for the project and has received interest from area artists and businesses. The center is organizing the Mount Rainier Better Block Project in conjunction with the Mount Rainier Business Association and the Gateway Community Development Corporation, Townshend said.

The City Council unanimously voted to support the project and pledged to work with Townshend to help secure funding and permits. A cost estimate for the project had not been determined, she said.

"It helps people envision what our downtown 34th Street area would look like, and we hope that by doing that, people would be attracted to come and open up businesses," said council member Jimmy Tarlau (Ward 1).

Michelle Darden Lee, project director of the Mount Rainier Business Association, said the project could also show off the spirit of its residents. "Mount Rainier is a good investment," Lee said. "The citizens are willing to pull together."

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