Chicago has its "magnificent mile." Oz has its yellow brick road. If Prince George's County developers and officials have their way, the one-mile stretch between the Capitol Heights and Addison Road Metrorail stops may well become the county's magic mile.
Though the two Metro stops are not scheduled to open until late this year, county planners in Upper Marlboro and city officials in Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights have begun to lay the foundations for the future showplace commercial area they believe will stretch from the eastern apex of the District line to Addison Road and beyond.
"As far as we were concerned, Capitol Heights was going to hell before this talk of a Metro started," said Eugene Zamer, administrative consultant to the town of Capitol Heights. "The young people were leaving town and the business district was sinking fast. Now I believe this town is going to make like the Phoenix and rise from the ashes."
"We're now attracting young people, both black and white. I'd hate to even try and put a price tag on the amount of development this town will eventually get," said Zamer, a short, rotund man whose eyes light up when he speaks of Metro. At times, one can almost hear the cash register ringing in his ears.
Mayor Leo Forami predicts that Capitol Heights "is going to be boom city. Nothing better has ever happened to Capitol Heights. We will become the gateway to the nation's capital. It is a blessing not only to us, but for all the generations that follow us."
Metro fever has not been restricted to the boundaries of Capitol Heights. It has swept through Seat Pleasant and on to Upper Marlboro. County and town officials say they plan to spend millions of dollars to make capital improvements in the area and to stimulate commercial and residential development worth millions more.
Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights will receive nearly $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the next few years to pay for street improvements and land clearance. The state presently is spending several million dollars to widen Central Avenue from two lanes to six.
Capitol Heights already is making known its wish to find developers for a three-block radius around its Metro stop.
When asked what they see on the horizon, town officials talk of high-density development: town houses and highrise residential and commercial buildings. They proudly point out that construction on a 700-unit townhouse development already has begun.
Seat Pleasant leaders are just as excited and have taken a larger role in the development process. They have even tried to buy a 13-acre plot diagonally across from their Metro stop, at the southeastern corner of Addison Road and Central Avenue.
"We'd like to make sure we get quality development," said Seat Pleasant town administrator Eddie Tobias. "We also want to make sure that developers will have the kind of economic incentives they need to begin work."
Tobias says the city hopes the site will attract businesses and light industry that will provide jobs and services for residents.
Land speculation also has begun.
Walter D. Velona, a local Realtor, walked into the Seat Pleasant city hall several weeks ago and said he represented a large insurance company that wants to spend at least $25 million to buy and develop property within a quarter-mile radius of the Addison Road stop.
"This area has a lot of potential, being so close to the District line," said Velona. "It may be economically depressed right now, but that will change. If we do something exotic here, we could make this the Prince George's County version of Rosslyn."
Velona refused to name the insurance company he represented.
Homeowners and business people near the Addison Road stop have gotten telephone calls, mail and visits from Realtors anxious to acquire the right to sell their property. Few monetary offers have been made, though.
One gasoline station owner was offered $350,000 for his Exxon dealership. James Wilson, who manages the Exxon station directly across the street from the Metro, said the owner, his brother, paid only a fraction of that for the dealership but declined to name the figure.
"We were just kidding the man when he first asked us how much we would sell the station for," said Wilson. "We said $350,000 and the guy said 'You've got a deal.' My brother couldn't believe it. We finally just told the man we weren't interested in selling."
Despite the talk of big money, master plans ans speculation, officials in both Upper Marlboro and the towns know they are engaged in the difficult task of turning a largely low- to moderate-income area known for a high-crime rate and economic stagnation into prime development territory.
"I don't think anyone expects the area to be turned around overnight," said Janice Lorenz, a county planning commission staff member who is directly the work of a consultant in drafting short-term development plans for the Capitol Heights-Seat Pleasant Metro corridor. The consultant, the Real Estate Research Corp., is based in Chicago but has offices in Washington.
"That's one reason why the consultant study being done right now only focuses on the next five years," she added. "The emphasis right now is on stabilizing the area."
Because they agree on a need to provide incentives for potential developers, both town and county officials have gone after all the state and federal money they can get.
A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce gave Seat Pleasant special impact area status, making the town eligible for low-interest federal loans for economic development.
"We know that the best developers are going to lay back and wait until they are convinced that this community is worth the high capital investment," said Tobias. "That's why the city and the county are going to have to take a leadership role here."
At one point recently, 10 families just off Central Avenue and Addison Road were warned that they might have to sell their homes and property to Metro to make way for a supplemental parking lot for Metro riders using the Addison Road stop.
"I think that plan is pretty much dead," said Prince George's transit administrator Dee Allison. "Several council members have already said that they simply won't accept it."
Allison said the county executive's staff will present an alternative plan to the County Council before May 27, when the council will make its official recommendation on a parking site to the Metro Board. While the Metro board will have the final word, Allison said that the county's position on the matter will carry considerable weight.
Other residents and small business owners in the area have not fared so well. For example, small businesses already feel the pinch of rising rents, and many fear the space they rent will be sold to developers who want to build high-rise commercial and residential buildings.
Take, for example, Benny Tilghman, 54, of Capitol Heights. Until recently, he ran a television repair shop on Central Avenue, barely four blocks from the new Metro station. Tilghman's workshop was in a ramshackle store-front facing Central Avenue.
The vacant buildings connected to Tilghman's shop once formed the heart of the Capitol Heights business district. Now their owner has decided to let the city demolish the structures, which look like props for a ghost town in an old western movie. City officials hope that a highrise will spring up in its place in a few years.
Tilghman is upset.
"I've been here for three years, and I was just beginning to build up a reputation that would attract business," said Tilghman, who has closed his repair shop, at least for the time being. "It's a real blow because I may never be able to find a place that is cheap enough to make my repair business profitable."
When Lola Owens, 58, put the furniture from her Central Avenue House of Beauty on a moving truck two weeks ago, she was not sure she would be able to return to the building, which is scheduled to be remodeled.
"I'd like to come back to the same location, but I'm not crazy enough to think that the rent will still be $300 a month," said Owens. "The rent is going to go up, but I'm not worried. I'm not too far from retirement."
Other residents have taken a hard line.
Angelo and Mary Vendemia live a few doors from Tilghman's shop and are the last inhabitants of a block-long store-front structure that once housed small mom-and-pop stores and apartments. Angelo, who has lived in the building for all of his 67 years, closed his barbershop five years ago but lives with his wife in an apartment in back of the shop.
"They aren't going to throw me out of my house into the streets," said Mary Vendemia, a short, stout woman who seems combative enough to fight anyone who would try to take her home. "They aren't going to knock down my home. They'd better come to me and give me my price. Where do they think we're going to live?"
Officials in both Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights are aware of the problems, but say that some displacement may be inevitable.
"In the short-run, some people may be forced out of the area, but they will probably be able to get reasonable prices for their property," said Seat Pleasant Mayor Henry Arrington. "It might get a little worse in the long-run because commercial establishments will want to expand and they may put more pressure on people to sell."
Some community leaders worry that black entrepreneurs may gain little from the commercial expansion in the two predominantly black inner-beltway communities.
It's going to be awfully difficult for black businessmen to get the kind of capital that's needed to play the development game," said Alphonso Pearson, a black lawyer and businessman who has lived in Seat Pleasant 11 years. "I don't see the black community getting much more than a tiny fraction of the profits that come out of this."
City officials believe, however, that the new commercial centers that will spring up in the area will provide jobs and services previously unavailable.
Owens summed up the feelings of many residents of the area when she commented, "I guess this is the price of progress. You just can't hold it back. I just hope it benefits the people who are still living here."