The view through Carlous and Heyward Burrell's parlor window tells the story of the Benning Road-Minnesota Avenue crossroads, a gateway to Far Northeast that in pre-shopping mall days was the District's largest retail center east of the Anacostia River.
From their Victorian-style house at the foot of Fort Mahan Park, the Burrells have a bird's-eye view of the once-thriving Benning-Minnesota retail center: nine acres of asphalt parking lot ringed by 13 small shops, a department store and a furniture warehouse. In its 1950s heyday, the shopping center was the tie that bound the neighborhood's residents together, the core of a city-within-a-city that declined as the big merchants left.
The Burrells, who have lived on Benning Road for 25 years, do most of their shopping at malls in suburban Maryland, they said. "Downtown is too congested, and there aren't all that many decent stores left around here," said Carlous Burrell.
Next month, in an unprecedented bid to capture the dollars that have been leaving the neighborhood for years, the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization will invest nearly $2 million to acquire the underused retail center, culminating seven years of city-sponsored studies of the Benning-Minnesota intersection.
"The goal is simple: to make the area a decent, desirable place to shop," said Lloyd D. Smith, the organization's executive director.
If it can secure adequate financing and advertising, the 3-year-old community organization will simultaneously revive the retail center--which it plans to call East River Park--and spur development in nearby neighborhoods, Smith said.
"Once that area was the major commercial center for Ward 7," he said. "We can make it that again."
Business along the commercial strip--which includes a drugstore, a wig shop, a record store, a barber shop, a shoe store and a couple of carryouts--has been slow but steady, according to Smith and the center's merchants. The area is on solid commercial footing, but some shoppers have shunned it because of its deteriorating appearance; Ward 7 residents spend as much as 80 percent of their disposable income outside the ward, Smith estimated.
"We've been overlooked until now, overlooked by our own people, our own merchants and businessmen, and by the city--by people of every stripe," said the Rev. Floyd Gayles, the pastor of St. James Baptist Church, located on the north side of the Benning-Minnesota intersection.
Gayles, whose small wooden church was torn down four years ago to make way for the Minnesota Avenue Metro station two blocks from the intersection, said the redevelopment project "holds a lot of promise for thousands of people."
If it succeeds, community leaders say, the project will be the latest achievement in an area with a long history of self-reliance and stability. "Northeast has always been for pioneers," said Smith, referring to the neighborhood's start in the 1860s as one of the nation's first large enclaves of blacks. The area is still home to descendants of the Jacksons, Stewarts and Chapmans, old-line families that settled in Far Northeast three generations ago.
The Benning Road area changed little in this century until the 1940s, when inner-city residents and businesses moved to the District's edge to capitalize on the neighborhood's village-like atmosphere.
"The community has been able to survive because it stayed close-knit," said Carlous Burrell. "It's still very solid." Yet, she said, residents' loyalty seldom extends to patronizing nearby shops on a regular basis; when she and her family shop, they invariably go to Landover Mall or Iverson Mall.
So does Minnie Edwards, 78, the widow of a prominent Baptist minister who built a house next to the Burrells in 1942. Edwards said she visits the nearby retail center "for three things, and three things only: to shop for groceries, to get a prescription filled or to get a pair of shoes repaired."
"There ain't nothing worth buying down there," said Edwards, who owns her house, as do many residents who just north and south of the retail area. "When I want to get my shopping done, I go to all the malls: Iverson, Landover, Montgomery. The parking is free in all those places."
Edwards said she generally avoids Benning-Minnesota because of the vendors who crowd the sidewalk, the drug dealers who frequent the strip and the trash-filled alleys near the intersection.
Despite those problems, the Northeast neighborhood--a mix of low- and middle-income residents with small pockets of well-to-do homeowners--still takes pride in its heritage, the residents said. The median income of the 90,000 residents is roughly $16,000--equal to the citywide average.
The Marshall Heights Community Development Organization is risking millions in a long-term venture to revitalize the crossroads, Smith acknowledged. The group has an April 30 deadline to pay Burman Properties Inc., the retail center's owner, $1.6 million in cash and establish a 20-year mortgage of more than $750,000 for the commercial site. The purchase will be financed with an $860,000 loan from the D.C. National Bank and a $725,000 loan from the city's Office of Business and Economic Development, Smith said.
After initial repairs to storefronts and the retail center's parking lot, the organization may construct a complex of new commercial, office and residential buildings on the site. "But our first priority is the aesthetics, the appearance of the place, keeping it attractive," Smith said.
Spokesmen for the shopping center's two anchors--the Hub furniture store and the large McBride's discount store--said even minimal repairs would benefit the plaza.
"We have found this community to be very responsive, but a lot of revitalization is needed," said Larry Dubit, executive vice president of McBride's.
The Benning Road location, McBride's headquarters and the most profitable of the company's three District stores, is plagued with shoplifters, Dubit said.
"All the development ideas sound terrific," said Dubit, who has been with the store for 11 years, "but no one's come up with the money to do it. Maybe this deal will fly."
Howard I. Erdrich, the Hub furniture chain's manager for Washington and Baltimore, said the Benning Road outlet "definitely is holding its own."
Like McBride's, Hub enjoys repeat business from Northeast's stable population. "We have families who have been coming here for years," said Erdrich. Neither he nor Dubit would discuss sales figures for their stores.
Smith said he was confident that the community development group can secure the funds to buy and improve the Benning-Minnesota shopping center. "We don't have any illusions about how difficult this is, but he have cleared nearly all of the major hurdles," said Smith. Some development group officials privately said the group may have to seek an extension on its April deadline for finalizing the purchase, delaying immediate renovations until mid-summer.
But Smith remained confident that the sale will go through. "We're not going to slap a little paint on this center and milk it for five years," he said. "We're beating a path for other investors."