Back in 1983 when the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization purchased an underused shopping center at Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue in far Northeast Washington for $2.3 million, its director said the goal was simple: "to make the area a decent, desirable place to shop."
For years, merchants and business leaders had shunned the neighborhood because of its deteriorating appearance, leaving residents to seek goods and services elsewhere.
But yesterday, Citicorp Savings officials signed an unspecified long-term lease to occupy 5,000 square feet of space in the East River Park Shopping Center, which marks the first time a bank will open in Ward 7 in about 20 years.
And early next year, a 40,000-square-foot Safeway store is expected to open in the retail center, an occasion residents are patiently awaiting.
Both events mark the near-completion of plans set down four years ago by Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Marshall Heights group to attract merchants and businesses to the area.
"Developers do not want to develop where there is no potential," said Smith, a former city planner.
To attract developers, "somebody had to take the center and renovate it, and nobody was doing it."
For area residents, who are mostly homeowners and retired professionals, the shopping center will make it more convenient to shop for services and goods that in the past were found in Maryland shopping centers and malls.
"We think it's a nice gesture," said Carlous Burrell, who has lived in a Fort Mahan Park house overlooking the shopping center for 29 years. "It's convenient for elderly people."
To capture the dollars that had been leaving the neighborhood, the Marshall Heights group, along with developer Jenco, spent $600,000 to spruce up the storefronts and pave a new parking lot.
"It's much better than it was years ago," Burrell said. "It was such an eyesore."
Built in 1939, the shopping center was the District's largest retail center east of the Anacostia River in the pre-shopping mall days.
In the 1950s, the center was the core of the neighborhood, binding residents together.
"The shopping center was quite a draw for many of us," said Geraldine E. Harrison, who has lived two blocks away on Blaine Street for 30 years. "One of the reasons we moved to the neighborhood was because of the shopping center."
But the quality of the shopping center declined dramatically after the 1968 riots, in which many stores were looted. Merchants left rather than develop or even maintain their businesses.
But all that has changed for the center, which some say is an example of what a public organization in conjunction with a private developer can do.
"It's very important that it has come to the Marshall Heights group, because they have been the most aggressive and competitive," said D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who heads the council Committee on Housing and Economic Development.
For Citicorp Savings, the decision to open a branch in the center was more sensible than philanthropic.
"It's here to make money," said Thomas C. Gaspard, chief executive officer of Citicorp Savings of Washington. "The fact that we can serve the people in the area was serendipity."
Gaspard said the bank has committed itself to helping urban areas voluntarily, independent of the District government's commercial corridor revitalization program, and added, "We're committed to opening two branches in underserved communities in the next three years."
The bank is expected to open late this year or early next year.
Even with the success of signing leases with Citicorp Savings and Safeway, Smith said the group has come only halfway in accomplishing the goals set down four years ago.
"We're midway to full development," Smith said. "We want a complete shopping center."
To Smith, that includes men's and women's clothing stores, a restaurant and a shoe store in addition to the 14 stores already operating. "We have some parcels that we can develop," he said.
To Jarvis, the recent success of the Marshall Heights group indicates a positive trend in revitalizing economically depressed areas.
"More businesses are opening in underserved communities because they realize it's good business," Jarvis said.
For resident Harrison, the renovation of the center means living in the neighborhood has become more "wonderful."