The promise of a revitalized Mount Rainier has tantalized residents who have been waiting for years on plans to redevelop blighted properties along Rhode Island Avenue near the D.C. line.
The proposals were set back by the past decade’s recession, and residents have watched as new townhomes and trendy restaurants have emerged in nearby Hyattsville, just north of the Prince George’s County city.
Finally, however, things are starting to move in Mount Rainier. A mixed-use development that will feature apartments and first-floor retail is in the planning stage, and the county’s redevelopment authority has purchased an adjacent block in the downtown section. The pair of projects could potentially transform a faded area into a bright, eclectic streetscape.
“Imagine what we can do with the gateway to Prince George’s County, and the gateway to the nation’s capital,” said Mayor Malinda Miles, who has held the office since 2005.
But longtime residents point out that Mount Rainier, population 8,500, already has plenty to offer. It’s part of the Gateway Arts District, meaning housing incentives are available for artists who want to live and work in the city. Others are drawn by classic bungalows and foursquare homes with wide porches shaded by the city’s mature trees. Mount Rainier offers a slice of suburbia in an urban setting, with a short commute to downtown Washington.
“What I tell people is that you also have to enjoy the ride, you have to enjoy Mount Rainier as it is,” said Jimmy Tarlau, a 10-year resident and City Council member.
A place for artists: Tarlau says Mount Rainier’s walkable neighborhoods and local businesses already have appeal. The Glut health-food cooperative has anchored the local commercial district since 1969, and performance venue Joe’s Movement Emporium had 70,000 visitors for its classes and events last year, said director Brooke Kidd, an 18-year resident who also serves on the city’s business association.
The city “took a million-dollar gamble a number of years ago” when it purchased land containing a liquor store and a funeral home on the District line with the intention of using the land for redevelopment, Tarlau said. “We wanted to make sure we could have some control along the gateway corridor,” he said.
The city, founded in 1910, was one of several streetcar suburbs outside Washington. The circle in the city’s center once served as a turnaround point for the streetcars. Bryan Knedler, a former mayor and council member who wrote a history of the community, noted that Mount Rainier has been transformed from its conservative early days, when it featured an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, into “one of the more progressive places in the area.”
In addition to the Rhode Island Avenue corridor, artists’ spaces are found along Otis Street at the Red Dirt Studios and the Washington Glass School and Studio. The Mount Rainier Artists Lofts, with 44 live/work units, dominate the Rhode Island Avenue corridor on the circle, and a cafe there occupies a ground-floor storefront.
The city also takes advantage of the Art Lives Here program, Kidd said, funded with grant money that fosters “creative placemaking” projects and arts programs in the Gateway Arts District, which extends two miles through four municipalities along Route 1.
Living there: Mount Rainier is bordered by Queens Chapel Road to the north, the town of Brentwood to the east, the CSX rail line to the south and Eastern Avenue, the D.C. line, to the west.
Prices took a dive during the recession, but “we’ve seen a pretty good recovery in the past two years,” said David Maplesden of Long & Foster. He expects appreciation to slow in 2014 with the rise in interest rates. Foreclosures are down significantly, from 20 to 25 properties sold by banks from 2008 to 2010 to just three in the past 12 months, Maplesden said. There were 11 short sales during that one-year period.
In the past 12 months, 59 homes sold in Mount Rainier, at prices ranging from $82,320 (a short sale) to $456,000. Nine properties are for sale now, ranging from a three-bedroom, one-bathroom Colonial priced at $120,000 to a three-bedroom, one bathroom bungalow for $324,555. Eleven homes are under contract, from a five-bedroom, three-bathroom bungalow that sold in a short sale for $90,000 to a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house that sold in a regular sale for $275,786.
Mount Rainier is still seen as a destination for people “migrating from D.C., Capitol Hill,” Maplesden said. Those residents are looking for yards and more space than they could get in the city, he said. Residents need to factor in Mount Rainier’s additional city taxes, Maplesden noted. Properties are assessed in Maryland every three years, so property values can fluctuate.
Crime: Police Chief Michael Scott said his 17-member force saw an unusual spike in stolen vehicles in January after a record low in the category in 2013. Scott said the city’s crime rate has dropped 48 percent since 2005-2006, but burglaries and thefts remain a concern.
Schools: Mount Rainier and Thomas Stone elementary, Hyattsville Middle and Northwestern High.
Transit: Metrobus and county buses serve the city. The nearest Metrorail stations are West Hyattsville on the Green Line in Prince George’s County and Rhode Island Avenue on the Red Line in Northeast Washington.
Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.