BY ALLAN WALTERS — If your daily commute takes you on Baltimore Ave between Gallatin and Jefferson streets, you may have noticed your view has gotten a lot more interesting. Instead of drab gray or white buildings with peeling paint, crumbling facades and boarded up windows, you can now see rainbow-colored, patterned murals and graffiti style art by local artists.
You can thank Hyattsville’s Green Owl Design, an interior design firm, for the new look. Erica Riggio and Angela Justice, cofounders of the firm, put it simply: “We got tired of looking outside of our office windows and seeing abandoned buildings.”
They tagged their effort #fighttheblight to promote awareness of their goals to improve the streetscape. “We wanted to create a sense of place,” said Riggio and Justice. “Art changes how people utilize space and how they move through their own neighborhood.”
The team at Green Owl Design said in a press release that they also wanted to “eliminate the blight, create a cohesive, artful experience along Route 1, and work with and promote local artists.”
Their timing was fortuitous. As Green Owl Design was making plans and talking with local artists, the new owners of the vacant properties along Baltimore Avenue were making plans of their own.
Early this year, Urban Investment Partners (UIP), a DC-based real estate investment firm, began buying the rundown properties along Baltimore Avenue with the goal of building a new mixed-use retail and residential development.
Brook Katzen, UIP vice president of development, explained the company’s goals. “We started assembling the properties about eight months ago and the site plan and approval process can take up to 18 months. We did not want to keep the buildings in the condition that they were in for that entire time. We wanted to activate the site in the predevelopment period, building excitement and brand awareness.”
UIP started with a pop-up park, now recognized as “Polka Dot Park,” that Katzen said, ”was intended as a space for concerts, farmers markets and even birthday parties.” The next step was to “put wheels in motion for a murals project,” he said, adding that it was “something we did not know exactly how to do.”
Enter Green Owl Design. The firm contacted UIP and the two groups met. The decision was made to hire Green Owl to take the lead on the mural project and overall design initiative. The team at Green Owl Design — Riggio, Justice, Briana Bailey, Elly Vander Kolk and Josh Franklin — assembled local artists and coordinated their efforts, while also creating artworks of their own. One of the most prominent works, the large mural that reads “Handmade in Hyattsville,” was created by Bailey.
There has already been a marked change in the area and how it is being used. UIP coordinated the first community event at Polka Dot Park on Sept. 30 with a free concert headlined by local band Blue Plains.
And, Hyattsville residents are taking notice. Tom Behrens, who was at the concert, said he was pleased with what he saw. “I think it is great,” he said. “There was no reason to come down here before. The new look reflects better on the neighborhood — it looks like something is happening.”
A diverse team of local businesses and artists have participated in the #fighttheblight initiative. In addition to members of Green Owl Design, local businesses Will’s Decorating, Capital City Painting and Artist and Craftsman Supply have supported the effort. Artists who volunteered their time and talent include Sari Rin, James Wine, Isak Shah, Takashi Nakajima, Octavio Gonzalez, Erick Satchell, Ric Garcia and Bronwyn King.
Haven’t had a chance to see the art in person yet? Don’t worry; The murals and paintings should be visible until at least the summer of 2018 when UIP plans to start construction on the new development. The plan for the fully developed site, Katzen said, “will contain apartments and 31,000 square feet of retail [space] on the west side of Baltimore Avenue — roughly equal to the amount of retail that currently exists on the east side.” Additional site improvements will include widening the sidewalk and building 600 new parking spaces that will be turned over for the city to manage.