City grant offers local businesses a facelift

With the help of a grant from the Community Facade Improvement Program, this former auto glass store at 4802 Rhode Island Ave. was transformed and will be occupied by DC Sweet Potato Cake. Photo courtesy of the City of Hyattsville

BY LINDSAY MYERS — The aesthetic transformation of the Route 1 Corridor into a funky hot spot for creative types is due in part to the Community Facade Improvement Program sponsored by the City of Hyattsville. The program incentivizes local property owners to invest in exterior improvements to commercial buildings by offering a dollar-for-dollar matching grant of $5,000 to $50,000. This year marks the fifth year the city has sponsored the program.

Jim Chandler, the director of Community and Economic Development for the city, said he feels like the program has actually changed the aesthetics and vibe of the Arts District in Hyattsville.

“When we started the program, we were basing it off of a similar one that Ocean City is doing, and they told us down there, ‘Give it time, it’s going to take five, six, seven years before it takes off,’ and now I think we are really seeing a difference,” said Chandler.

In the last five years, the south end of the Route 1 Corridor in particular has benefited from the grant. Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store, Vigilante Coffee Company and the former Big Bad Woof all received major exterior improvements, while Tanglewood Works, the new Art Works Now and Pizzeria Paradiso are currently participating in the program.

Chandler said he is especially excited when the city has the opportunity to help update and restore the many historic commercial buildings in Hyattsville.

“You look at some of these modern buildings and they’re chic, nice, but I don’t know if they’ll be around in a hundred years. The facade program allows us to blend old and new. It offers a good mix — new lighting, new windows but still all the history,” said Chandler.

When Daniel Simon bought the 1918 Palmer Building, he intended to use it only as an office for his small Virginia-based cleaning company. He liked that the building had previously been an old Model T dealership and that, with a little construction, he could finagle it into something unique and functional. “I always said that I wanted to be able to roll my car right up to my desk,” Simon joked. When Chris Vigilante approached Simon about opening Vigilante Coffee, however, Simon saw the potential and found a new office. Luckily, the building’s history also had attracted Vigilante. Simon applied for a grant through the Commercial Facade Improvement Program, and the pair used the money to give the place a complete exterior makeover and restore the working garage door now iconic to the cafe.

Simon said that investing in the aesthetics and functionality of a building is one of the best ways to attract good tenants.

“A lot of real estate people are only interested in the bottom line, and then they’ll let something go until it absolutely has to be fixed. But tenant input and feedback is important to me. I like to spend time on the ground and listen to them. If my tenants are happy and making money, then I’m happy and probably getting my rent,” said Simon.

Chandler also emphasized the importance of a well-kept and updated facade to attracting good property owners and good tenants. In a presentation detailing the program’s outcomes and statistics thus far, Chandler cited a front-door philosophy from the City of Minneapolis as a guiding principle for the program: “a welcoming, vibrant business district sends a powerful, positive message, just as a poorly maintained or vacant row of storefronts conveys a negative impression.”

As the Arts District has become more popular with entrepreneurs like Simon — who has embraced the boom of creative people calling Route 1 home by also opening up the Studio SoHy art gallery and seeking out creative types like Sue Mondeel of Tanglewood Works as tenants — Chandler has started noticing a change in the overall demographic of property owners in the area.

“Some Hyattsville property owners just hold onto abandoned buildings for tax purposes, but these types generally seem to be cashing out. We want to incentivize property owners so that they’ll attract good tenants, and one of the ways to do that is to present an attractive building. With a lot of these historic Main Street-type buildings, the bones are good, but the cost of new signs, windows, doors and paint adds up quickly,” Chandler said.

Chandler is looking for property owners who are willing to move forward on projects immediately and have the capital in hand to do it. Applicants are required to invest at least the same amount of money in the project as that granted by the city. The money is put into escrow and managed by the city so that contractors only have one point of contact during the project. For the most part, however, the design is dictated by the property owners and the tenants.

“We generally don’t dictate aesthetics,” said Chandler, though he added that the city does offer the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center’s pro bono services to assist with conceptual design and cost estimation.

Simon called Chandler a “superstar” at the city. He said Chandler’s dedication is part of what has transformed Hyattsville into the vibrant, arts-driven community it has become.

“There are some incredible key people over there [in the city building]. They’ve done a lot to make Hyattsville what it is, especially on the commercial development side of things,” said Simon.

With another full year of funding to distribute, the city is looking forward to transforming a couple more ugly ducklings into swans. Then it’s up to the swans to hold their own in a pond full of bold, artsy types already splashing around.

Applications for the program are due by 4:00 p.m. on Friday, June 30, and can be found through the city website or by calling the Department of Community and Economic Development at 301.985.5000.

The former auto glass store at 4802 Rhode Island Ave., as it looked before it was transformed using a grant from the Community Facade Improvement Program. Photo courtesy of the City of Hyattsville