Hyattsville officials this week announced the sale of the city's one and only castle--the granite-walled Armory building overlooking Rte. 1--for conversion into a shopping mall that city leaders hope will transform their business district as well.
Hyattsville is the hub of northern Prince George's County, but it has suffered for years from a down-at-the-heels image, generated to a large extent by the blocks of car lots, vacant storefronts and undistinguished shops that commuters pass each day along Route 1.
Community leaders have been waiting for a break, a project that would get their redevelopment plans rolling. With the sale of the Armory building, "It can be done, and it will be done," according to Mayor Tom L. Bass.
"The catalyst we needed was to get some major project going," Bass said. "We've been working on this revitalization for years. But the banks, the people with the money, they said, 'You have to have a project, you need a project.' Well, this one's for real, and the money's there, and it's going to be done."
The 20,000-square-foot interior will be turned into a mall of shops, at least one restaurant, and an auditorium, according to plans by the developer, David Shikles, who is buying the former National Guard station for an undisclosed amount from Bromwell Fireplace Equipment Co. Conversion will begin in September and is expected to take six months, according to Helen Payne, an assistant city administrator in charge of economic development.
She said officials hope it will touch off the economic revival they have been planning in Hyattsville's downtown. "I hope we will get an office building or two and a parking deck; the armory is part of the whole rebirth. It's the beginning," she said.
A $10,000 state grant and matching funds from the city went to pay Payne's salary as the city's Main Street development coordinator and also to hire the National Development Council, a Washington consulting firm. Maryland's Economic and Community Development department hired the same firm to sell Hyattsville to entrepreneurs, financiers and land owners, Bass said.
"They like to put deals together," Bass said. "They brought the buyer in on this one."
A previous prospect, although gushing with enthusiasm, couldn't get the financing, Bass said. That was last summer, and Klaus Schuermann, a Corpus Christie, Tex., developer, had wanted to put in shops, a restaurant and a performance hall, according to Bass.
The project Schuermann envisioned apparently was picked up on by Shikles, who even wants to use the name that Schuermann coined: "Castle on the Hill," according to a large sign in front of the massive structure.
It really was built as a castle--its design was taken from blueprints for the Windsor Castle when the National Guard built its Hyattsville bastion in 1917. Blocks of granite were swung into place, leaving narrow windows in the towers that guard the intersection of Jefferson Street and Rte. 1.
The armory building was used by Company F of the Maryland National Guard until the 1960s. It then stood vacant until 1975, when it was sold to Bromwell Fireplace Equipment Co. for offices and storage, according to Gertrude McCamley, Hyattsville city clerk.
But the sturdy and defensive character of the structure will present somewhat of an encumberance as builders attempt to make it more accommodating and less dungeonesque.
"It's awkward, the way it's built, for retail business," Bass said. "It's going to take tremendous effort to make it accessible to the public, with that big stairway in front."
Shikles plans to open up entrances on the side of the building next to a city parking lot.
Bass said the city is willing to do whatever necessary to make the conversion possible, for seeing the building come to life would mean more to the city's 12,700 residents than simply having a place to shop.
Most of the city as they know it is a collection of turn-of-the-century Victorian homes tucked among the trees on tidy streeets in quiet residential neighborhoods. The city last year was awarded a spot on the National Register of Historic Places--the first area chosen from all of Prince George's.
Bass said that city residents are especially bothered when outsiders mutter ugly things about their town, because they are aware of what others don't see: the quality of their residential neighborhoods.
The neighborhoods are "really beautiful, and that's not reflected in the business area," Bass said. "That's why our people are involved: to try to get the business area looking as good as the residential area. It's a matter of pride."
With other municipalities struggling to revive their downtowns, Hyattsville has made use of special resources such as the University of Maryland School of Architecture on the nearby College Park campus. Students get academic credit rather than money, and Hyattsville gets models, charts and maps essentially for free.