Vacant buildings, deteriorating shopping centers and unplanned development mark much of the main business corridor of Bladensburg, once a bustling seaport and commercial center.
"A lot of business are doing well, but a lot of them are barely holding on," said Theodore Llama Jr., acting director of the Prince Georges County Neighborhood Business Revitalization office. "Some of the uses of land are indicative of some problems."
For instance, Llama noted that two World War II-era shopping centers facing each other across Annapolis Road each house used clothing stores. A supermarket was once situated where one of the stores is now, Llama said. "It represents a opportunity.
"There are a couple of vacant stores in the area," added William G. Porterfield, president of the Bladensburg Local Development Corp. "In some areas parking is very poor and there's nothing in there to draw the people. It doesn't look as nice as over at Prince Georges Mall."
But it is now up to Llama and Porterfield to make Bladensburg as nice as the larger shopping malls that are stealing business from local merchants. The local development authority, assigned the operation of giving sagging Bladensburg a little cosmetic surgery, helps local businesses qualify for up to $1.5 million in loans, $500,000 in loan guarantees, $5 million in industrial revenue bonds and other grants available through federal, state and local sources.
Right now, revitalization of the two-mile long, 248-acre area outlined by Annapolis Road from Baltimore Street to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway is mostly in the planning stages, Llama and Porterfield said. But problems could arise from local merchants who aren't interested in grooming their property.
A series of recent reports highlight what the two groups face. "Compared to other parts of Prince Georges County, Bladensburg is an older, mostly developed area," said a recently released report by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, "Most residential, commercial and industrial development took place prior to" the report's 1973 to 1978 study period. "The value of improvements therefore increased at a lesser rate in Bladensburg than in those parts of the county experiencing recent new development."
However, commercial land in Bladensburg increased more in value during the study period than in surrounding neighborhoods, the study said. But the report adds that Bladensburg is similar to surrounding neighborhoods in its lack of new commercial development during the study period relative to the entire county.
A companion report states that downtown Bladensburg "appears to be a stabilized area, but there are signs that it is having some trouble competing with other commercial areas.
Most of the business people located there, along Annapolis Road between Kenilworth Avenue and Bladensburg Elementary School, said they considered it to be a desirable place to do business, although the report's staff concluded that it is not.
"It is the staff's opinion that the mixture of stores in downtown Bladensburg appears to be less than desirable," the report said. "However, this opinion is not necessarily shared by businessmen. Thrift stores, storage rooms and a pool hall are occupying highway frontage alongside businesses more typically found in retail shopping areas."
Farther down toward the parkway, the area is described by the report as disorganized, partly deteriorating with abandoned structures with vacant land behind. But there also is a small concentration of newer offices in converted residences and high-rise structures.
The commercial district is concentrated mostly at the Peace Cross area and the industrial sector, mostly storage and warehousing, is well buffered and basically stable, the report said.
"As an older, unplanned, industrial area a number of prblems exist that are common to such areas," the report added. "However, for an older industrial area and viewed from that perspective it is not particularly unattractive in relation to other older industrial areas."
The revitalization thrust begun several years ago, Llama said. "The council early on recognized these older communities were suffering competitively with more modern shopping centers," Llama said.
The first phase of redevelopment will stretch from the Peace Cross area to the bridge over the Anacostia River, Llama said. The Peace Cross is a large cross at the intersection of Annapolis Road and Baltimore Street placed there in memory of World War I veterans, Llama said.
Across the street from the memorial are two used car lots which Llama and Porterfield said they hope the county can buy. They will then seek a developer to build a low-rise office structure. The county council has allocated $260,000 for such a project, Llama said.
The rest of the redevelopment will consist mainly of facelifts of old buildings, Llama said. Since the county cannot do it, the local development corporation and the neighborhood business revitalization staff must encourage businesses to participate.
Although Llama and Porterfield said that prominent Bladensburg business people favor the redevelopment, a survey of business people in the reports shows that most of the business people feel the commercial corridor is satisfactory.
For instance, 80 percent of business people in the business district from 53rd Place to 56th Street said they felt that the mixture of stores in relation to the desires of customers was good, the report said. More than 47 percent in downtown Bladensburg said they felt that way as did 72.2 percent located from 56th Street to the Parkway.
Llama said the business people should take advantage of the location close to Washington and the "tremendous numbers of cars going through here." Some of the businesses hold irregular hours, Llama said, and turn off all their lights at night.
Some of the preliminary plans include two-story town house offices, rehabilitation of vacant colonial-style buildings, and helping business people with their own design plans.
The revitalization process is expected to take about five years, Llama said, and similar programs are under way in Suitland and Mt. Rainier.
By that time, "the big shopping centers will look tacky," Llama said. "Ten years from now, maybe they'll look worse."