RIA Deserted Main Street: Woodridge

Read Lydia DePillips’, of the Washington City Paper, account of her walk this past weekend with FORIA’s Board of Directors and the Insider:


Is there Hope for Woodridge? 
Posted by Lydia DePillis on Dec. 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

On the western end of the eastern half of Rhode Island Avenue, gentrification has done its work, lining the broad road with proudly restored rowhouses flowing out of Bloomingdale. After heading up over a crest, the avenue descends past a rough patch of car ramps up to a strip mall vacated last year by Safeway, through a cluster of cinderblock buildings owned by Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, and under the Red Line. Signs of investment appear again with a modern apartment complex just finishing construction near the Metro station, surrounded in the hustle and bustle of another strip mall and the District’s only Home Depot.

And then it continues uphill Northeast, fading into suburbia, with only the occasional fried chicken place or large church to draw you further; most drivers are heading out to homes in Maryland anyway. Few people walk, and even fewer ride bikes; six lanes for cars still leave no room.

But the avenue plateaus again at 20th Street, and the texture changes. Here, the sidewalks are wide, and the shopfronts close together with large front windows that once may have displayed food or dry goods. It has the architecture of community. Now, though, most are either shuttered or faced in metal grills. There are no sidewalk cafes, no benches or buskers, only the occasional pedestrian walking to catch a bus.

That two-block stretch is Rhode Island’s only real main street—or potential main street. It’s also the one that a new citizens group wants to focus on revitalizing. The Friends of Rhode Island Avenue (FoRIA), only a few months old now, figures that the area by the Metro station will take care of itself, as the new denizens of Rhode Island Row attract restaurants and retail. But their faraway retail strip is still surrounded by people who want a place to shop for groceries, do their drycleaning, go get a latte on a Tuesday morning and a drink on Friday night. Right now, other than the ladies-oriented nightclub Lace, they’ve got pretty much no options.

“If you want fresh food around here, you cannot get it. You can go to a 7-11, you can go to a Family Dollar,” says Stephanie Liotta Atkinson, an attorney who’s lived in the neighborhood for a year and a half. “You can get your taxes done, you can buy auto parts, and you can go to church.”

Daniel Brewer, who works at a salon downtown and in 2008 bought into the neighborhood with his partner Greg Roberts—author of Rhode Island Avenue Insider—shares Atkinson’s impatience with the taxicabs lot that takes up a prime corner. “I could see that being a really cool restaurant, with an outdoor patio,” he said. “Like Red Rocks.”

FoRIA’s board is mostly new residents, but it’s led by James Holloway, a security analyst who’s lived in Woodridge for more than two decades and insists the longtime Northeasterners want change too. “Don’t believe that the older residents don’t want development,” he says. “That is the biggest crock.”

Woodridge isn’t without its assets. During the day, Art Enables offers studio space to disabled people. There are a handful of healthy service businesses, like the well-regarded Woodridge Upholsterers, and Carl’s Subs has some of the best sandwiches in town. But like most businesses, Carl’s closes before 5:00 p.m. and doesn’t open on Sundays, leaving residents with no food options to speak of—even a Dunkin Donuts went out of business at 18th Street. According to my own (very rough) count, out of 57 addresses between 20th and 24th Street, there are five storefront churches, six barbershops and nail salons, and 21 buildings that are either vacant or shuttered in the middle of a weekday. There are no banks, no large office buildings, and even though single-family homes on the side streets have been handsomely renovated, residential density isn’t high enough to drive foot traffic.

Vacancies in other areas of the city, like H Street, Georgia Avenue, upper 14th Street, and even nearby 12th Street NE in Brookland, are seen as opportunities for entrepreneurs who want to bet on the next hot neighborhood. But Woodridge, which most people only see on their way to Maryland, isn’t on anybody’s radar screen (it didn’t even attract the interest of marijuana dispensaries).

It’s not as if the problem hasn’t been studied. An Urban Land Institute technical assistance report from 2008 lays out the district’s challenges and potential solutions, recommending that it be marketed as an arts and culture cluster. But the Premier Community Development Corporation, for whom the report was written, was never able to raise the matching funds to establish a Main Streets Program that would help with the branding, retail attraction, façade improvements, and streetscape overhaul that the report prescribed. Meanwhile, private investment has gone elsewhere—two neighborhood-oriented developers, Jair Lynch and EYA, have already done their big placemaking project on the Maryland side of Rhode Island Avenue, with the Metro-proximate Hyattsville Arts District.

Ward Five Councilmember Harry Thomas also likes to talk about how Rhode Island Avenue is now a Great Street, making it eligible for city funding. So far, that’s only resulted in another study, which identifies market potential for financing tools like TIFs, tax abatements, and federal grants. But even for that limited pool of money, Woodridge doesn’t stack up well against a bunch of other commercial nodes around the city—Anacostia and Minnesota-Benning come to mind—where investment might go further, faster. (And a Councilmember who’s under federal investigation is not the best equipped to fight for Woodridge’s piece of the pie).

Bo Menkiti, of the Brookland-based Menkiti Group, recently bought a couple of commercial buildings from a lady named Janice Booker, who had tried to make something happen in the neighborhood for years before losing her properties in a tax sale. He’s had a lot of inquiries about the spaces, but nothing yet from a proven operator. The best thing the city could do, Menkiti says, is set up some kind of incubator (join the club!) that could support entrepreneurs that wanted to locate there in a cluster—despite the affordable rents, moving to Woodridge is a big leap for a business, and there’s more safety in numbers.

In the mean time, though, Menkiti wants to see residents create a business-friendly environment for everybody, not just the wine bars and yoga studios they’re hoping will get there eventually.

 “Neighborhoods are made by the people who take the risk. People who go up there and sit there every day and worry about getting robbed. It’s not the people who go get a cup of coffee once a week,” he says. “We have set up this dynamic where everyone in the neighborhood complains about what’s there and says they want something else that’s not interested in being there, while not investing in the businesses that are there.”

Link to the story here.

10 thoughts on “RIA Deserted Main Street: Woodridge

  1. The Rhode Island Avenue Task Force needs to dissect this article and see how they can reverse this negative situation. The Main Street area even had a Liquor Store shut down recently.

    By the way, has anyone noticed the number of trees being cut down along Rhode Island Avenue recently? I’ve counted at least 10 mature trees cut down within the past 2 weeks. There are orange dots on the few remaining trees in the Main Street area, which are slated to be cut down also. Even the simple act of having these trees replaced would help a greal deal. We actually have a lot more resources than other communities like beautiful parks and green spaces, e.g. Langdon Park with its outdoor pool, dog park, tennis and basketball courts, and skateboard bowl. And, let’s not forget the library that will be rebuilt. At the last Task Force meeting one group wants to put a playground and a dog park in the area near Rita Aide. So, Rhode Island Avenue is a work is process. We need to be alert to projects that can help improve the corridor and act on them. I believe there will be a meeting to discuss Streetcars in DC which residents need to be active in.

    1. The article also mentioned “If you want fresh food around here, you cannot get it. ” It had the Woodridge farmers market which lasted only 5 months, but has moved to Fort Lincoln. The Rhode Island Avenue Task Force needs to find ways to retain viable businesses. If there is a business association for the corridor it needs to step forth. The article didn’t even mention the work of the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. It’s been working in the Main Street area for over 2 years. To stop the decline in businesses, it seems like the area really needs to have a “needs assessment” done. Has anyone noticed someone selling greens near the Midas shop? Who are they? I also saw them selling greens, barbecue, and potatoes just before the Thanksgiving holiday season.

      1. Well the article does mention that as part of the Great Street designation there was some “study” that was done but doesn’t say what went into that. The main thing I think RIA needs is more density. There just aren’t enough people around to attract any quality businesses. If you step back and look at RIA objectively and ask why would a business locate here over other strips like Georgia Ave/Petworth, 14th st, H st, U st., etc? Sure we have cheaper rents but thats not enough. We need people and more income.

        I believe everything on RIA begins and ends with how the immediate area surrounding the metro is developed and radiates from there. The station area is the first thing that anyone semi-familiar with the area would think about. It is a great asset and needs to be leveraged. It just sucks that nothing will happen for a long time with the old Safeway shopping center. If you ask me, that spot there is the key to the start of transformation.

  2. Keon,

    Putting more density on RIA is exactly what the study conducted under the original Great Streets program accomplished. It laid out specifically where to put the density in all 4 sectors of RIA. This blog has links to this study. But although, it’s in the plan, now developers have to take hold of the plan. The plan even included the vacant lot at 13th & RIA. It has a development sign and contact information, but the developer still hasn’t gone forward with the project.

    I think we’re all hoping RIA Metro station provides some good retail which will set the standard for what we all want to see on RIA. It has been suggested that we continue to talk to businesses we like and encourage them to come to RIARow. Also, Urban Atlantic has told us to continue to provide our wishlist on this blog.

    I don’t think the old Safeway shopping center is a show stopper. CVS is moving from there to RIARow. I think the bridge being planned will help link the two areas and help spur growth. Can RIAInsider give us an update on the bridge project? Has a contractor been selected?

    1. Yeah, I saw that plan and I am generally in agreement with the 4 sectors that were laid out but I think what is supposed to come next is that the zoning in the areas needed to be revised to allow for the plan to take root and entice developers to build densely in the area. I’m not sure the zoning adjustments were ever executed, but I could be wrong.

      However, I think the Safeway shopping center is definitely key because it is a huge plot of land and allows for a single transformative opportunity. Its got to be equal or larger than the DCUSA site in Columbia Heights (not saying thats what I want, because I don’t), but just saying that center combined with the metro changed the whole neighborhood.

      Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the strip has huge potential but I just honestly don’t think RIA will be looked at closely by developers until enough positive inertia comes from the station area.

  3. I think “density” is just an excuse word. Hyattsville has lots of new businesses and existing businesses that seem to be doing extremely well and I haven’t seen that there’s much density up there. Also, suburbs seem to have strip mall after strip mall of shops and restaurants supported by people in single family houses, not in densely populated apartment or condo buildings. People who live in our area must be going somewhere to shop and eat…it certainly isn’t around here.

    I also take issue to Bo Menkiti’s comment “Neighborhoods are made by the people who take the risk. People who go up there and sit there every day and worry about getting robbed. It’s not the people who go get a cup of coffee once a week,” he says. “We have set up this dynamic where everyone in the neighborhood complains about what’s there and says they want something else that’s not interested in being there, while not investing in the businesses that are there.” I’m sorry, but where the hell do you expect me to invest my money in existing businesses? Flip It is about the only viable outlet for money expenditure for me. I’m not going to go throw money at the Family Dollar just because it’s there….and I’m not up here for the 4 hours a day Carl’s is open. I’d love to have somewhere to go to “sit there every day and worry about getting robbed”…but we can’t even do that!

    PS…what kind of idiot talks about people getting robbed in an article when they have real estate interests they’re trying to lease out?

    1. I live near 18th and Monroe. Personally, I do most of my shopping in the suburbs. Maybe I’m not cool or whatever, but I like to shop at big box stores like Target, Best Buy, etc. And that’s where most of my shopping dollars go. In this area of DC, the store I shop at most is Home Depot.

      I like the restaurants and bars on H St, I go to them, but they’re not where I go to buy necessities. Mom and pop retail businesses are cool, to chat with the owner, build relationships and whatever, but most of the time I just want to go to a store where I know I’m likely to find what I need, get in, get out, and get on with the rest of my busy life. Maybe some people think I’m vapid or shallow, but I don’t think I’m in the minority. Suburbs do have strip mall after strip mall filled with mostly chain stores for a reason. For the majority of Americans, they fill a need. And for Ward 5 residents, they fill a need too. We just have to drive to the suburbs to fill that need instead of keeping tax dollars in the District.

      Instead of fighting chain stores and forcing DC residents like myself to drive to the burbs, the District should embrace them and keep tax dollars local. This is why Brookland Hardware has survived despite the Home Depot. They fill a need for enough people to keep it open. And before there was a Home Depot in Ward 5, Brookland Hardware was already in competition with Home Depots in the burbs. The difference now is that the Home Depot tax dollars stay in DC instead of going to MD.

      What’s worse, boarded up store fronts, or nice renovated storefronts with some chain stores? But I guess no one can agree on what should get done, so nothing does and RIA will continue to be storefront churches and wig shops, and residents will continue to leave the area for meaningful shopping options.

  4. I just walked the strip from 18th to 24th this morning. Saw two places being worked on next door to a building for lease by Menkiti group. I wonder what those will be.

    Next door to Dura-Sales Auto Parts an architectural accouterment was being removed from the second story facade. My thinking is someone is harvesting copper. Could that building also be getting some work?

    1. Sam,

      Those two buildings are also owned by Menkiti, as well as the one with the Menkiti lease sign. They are the ones they bought from Booker. One of the buildings was a former bank. I’ve heard they will be office buildings. I think a health services training school is already occupying some of the space. Across the street, was another former bank, which is also being converted into an office building, but is not owned by Menkiti.

      Next door to Dura-Sales is a new storefront church. It had a permit sign in one of the windows telling it was being converted to a church. It was a former Jamaican restaurant and on the second level was a church.

  5. Disappointed that the Article didn’t capture the jist of my comments about Rhode Island Ave and was quoted out of context

    My point was that we need businesses and the local community to work closely together to create/attract businesses that serve the needs of the residents and that the local community support and help grow and thrive.
    This seems to be exactly what is starting to happen and what FORIA and others are trying to accomplish

    If we can connect the demand from the neighborhood with local entrepreneurs and create a positive feedback loop to ensure the ongoing success of the initial businesses and proactive property owners who invest in the area there is a lot that can be accomplished …

    Transformative community development is what we are all about and we are very excited about what can happen along this stretch of RI Ave and are actively investing in the buildings we have and working with FORIA and local businesses to brings some additional life back to the block…..stay tuned for updates over the next few months on some new businesses coming to the 2000 block

    Please do reach out to us if you have suggestions or know of businesses that you think might be interested in locating on Rhode Island Ave…..We are looking forward to working with others in the community to make Rhode Island Ave a thriving place for businesses

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