Sandy Hassan remembers the good old days, when Woodridge, a small community in Northeast Washington, had just about everything she needed: a grocery store, a hardware shop, an Italian market and a laundromat.
Now, boarded storefronts and vacant buildings dot the community off Rhode Island Avenue near the Prince George’s county border. The community is almost completely residential, without the commercial retail that’s starting to characterize the modern Washington neighborhood.
“When we moved here, you could get almost everything that you needed on Rhode Island Avenue,” said Hassan, 66, who for 40 years has lived in the quiet leafy community that is largely bounded by South Dakota Avenue, Bladensburg Road, Eastern Avenue, Michigan Avenue and 18th Street. “One by one by one, we saw all these amenities go.”
But some of Hassan’s new neighbors are hoping to bring back the commercial amenities that once characterized the neighborhood. For these residents, Woodridge, and the old commercial corridor along Rhode Island, hold much potential.
The neighborhood has a “whole Mayberry feel to it,” said Nolan Treadway, a former Brookland resident who purchased a home in Woodridge two years ago. “It’s amazing. You go one block off [Rhode Island] and it’s manicured lawns and people on their porches saying hi.”
“I’ll admit that it’s not exactly Connecticut Avenue, if you’re looking for shops and storefronts,” Treadway added. “Hopefully, in the next couple of years you’ll be able to have a place where you get a sit-down meal with your kids on the avenue, or get a cup of coffee or get your clothes cleaned.”
Last year, in an effort to attract more attention to the area, Treadway, along with a group other local residents, created the organization Friends of Rhode Island Avenue, or FoRIA. “Mostly we’re just trying to sort of market Rhode Island Avenue as a place where people should start looking at opening businesses — let people know there’s people out here that want to be able to go and have pizza or do their dry cleaning on the avenue and not have to go awhile down Rhode Island somewhere or out onto Maryland,” he says.
On the organization’s blog, group members have chronicled their outreach into the community, posting photos from their monthly community cleanups, notes on the renovation of the Woodridge Library and ANC meeting notes. Some of their outreach, according to a post in UrbanTurf, a city real estate blog, included walking into a bar in Bloomingdale during the summer wearing T-shirts that read “Friends of Rhode Island Avenue” and leaving cards that said, “If you build it, we will come.”
Indeed, Woodridge, with three- and four-bedroom homes priced under $400,000, appears to be calling for new, younger home buyers who are looking to settle down in the city without the burden of moving to Maryland or Virginia. The neighborhood is leafy and lies near several biking trails. A bakery is slated to open in Woodridge in the spring on Rhode Island. A dog park opened last year.
Woodridge is in Ward 5, a section of the city that has been home to increased development recently. A new Metro-accessible luxury apartment outpost, Rhode Island Row, opened this year, and neighborhood watering holes such as Boundary Stone and Big Bear Cafe — the latter of which serves as a location for the weekly Bloomingdale Farmers’ Market — have received growing popularity.
But there is some skepticism as to whether Woodridge is ready for the influx of retail businesses that have flooded other neighborhoods. Taylor Gourmet, the successful sandwich shop, rents storage space in an old Italian bakery near 18th and Rhode Island Avenue NE. Hoping that the restaurant might be willing to open another shop, local residents created a Change.org petition that garnered 179 supporters. While the owners were ”flattered,” says Taylor Gourmet co-owner Casey Patten, they aren’t planning to open a new outpost in the area any time soon.
“I believe that sometime in the future that it will be an amazing corridor where we will definitely want to put our stake in the ground,” Patten said. “But I just don’t think that period is right around the corner.”
Meanwhile others have been frustrated by the pace of development. Philip Blair, a Brookland resident and former ANC commissioner whose jurisdiction included Woodridge, isn’t happy with the way things are progressing. “The one useful thing that I’ve seen the city do is [focus on] the new library at Woodridge,” he says. “I think we have a very not-yet-well-thought-out yet plan by a really good architect. That would be one bit of investment that would be a signal that the avenue is coming back.”
As with all conversations that revolve around development in Washington, there is concern about making sure that the concerns of older residents are taken into account. Hassan said she has been supportive of the moves made by the organization and has participated in a community cleanup day.
She said was impressed by the number of “younger people — much younger, like my children’s age!” who came out, but feels that the group’s challenge lies in remembering the needs of and engaging older residents. There is an online survey on the FoRIA site designed to gauge what neighbors would like to see, but Hassan feels that going door-to-door would be a better tactic for the seasoned set. “A lot of your seniors are not going to have computers . . . and consequently will not participate in that kind of survey. I think face-to-face . . . is a plus. Take the survey to the community.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) said it’s important for older residents to have a seat at the planning table. “They don’t want to wake up and feel like they’ve got services being offered on the corridor that they didn’t have a part in helping to establish,” he said in an interview. “The important piece is to make sure the community plays a very involved and engaged role in the economic development effort along Rhode Island Avenue.”
But the biggest hurdle may be getting the right kinds of businesses to come to Woodridge.“There’s a wonderful base of people making Woodridge and Brookland wonderful places to be in the city,” says Blair, arguing that their biggest obstacles to overcome are crime and school quality. “It’s heartbreaking to have a couple move in, have a kid, and on the kid’s second birthday party, they tell you they have to leave the city — and that’s gone on for way too long.
“We seem to be breaking that cycle a bit, which gives me hope,” he said.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported Nolan Treadway’s name. It has been corrected.
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