The City’s Trajectory: Though downtown has transformed, much remains the same

August 13, 2015

Photo courtesy T. Carter Ross.

BY MARK GOODSON — Forty years ago to the month, the front page of the now-defunct Prince George’s Post read “Merchants Brave Rt. 1 Blues.” The cover photo featured the former Hyattsville Hardware Company on Baltimore Avenue, the space Mike Franklin now operates as Franklins Restaurant, Brewery, and General Store.

In 1975, local business owners Julian Hanley of Hanley’s Jewelers and Joanne Hampton of Hyattsville Fishmall cited a lack of adequate parking and population scarcity as business obstacles. Still, merchants unanimously opposed the possibility of building a more commercially viable shopping center. The paper summarized local business “an endangered species” that will “never say die.”

Some things change; some remain the same.

The construction of the Arts District’s mixed-use developments has changed the face of Route 1. Population in the area is no longer a business concern, with housing structures such as the Mosaic at Metro, the Palette, and the Post Park Apartments filled with new residents.

Developers are eager to build here. In January, the city approved the application to develop the 3.77 acres in between The Home Depot and Giant on East-West Highway into 352 residential units.

Parking remains a concern downtown. The city responded by approving a new parking lot to be built Hamilton Street in the Arts District.

More and more new businesses are opening. Art Works Now and Pizza Paradiso broke ground on July 18; H&R Retail continues to develop and negotiate retail spaces adjacent to where the new Whole Foods will be in Riverdale Park; construction of the new Safeway at the University Town Center is scheduled to complete in the Fall. All spaces are mixed-use, shared between retail, residential, and educational initiatives.

Is this rapid growth in line with the gritty foresight of business owners a generation ago who resisted rapid commercial development in favor of local flavor? These developments undoubtedly spur stable economic growth, but do they sustain community spirit?

The Hyattsville Preservation Association (HPA) whose aim is to protect “Hyattsville’s architectural heritage,” supported the Art Works and Pizza Paradiso plan. Gloria Felix-Thompson, president of HPA, said the society “likes economic development if it also fosters small business and doesn’t destroy a good building.”

Felix-Thompson mentioned Mike Franklin as a business owner who sustained the integrity of the city’s architecture when he re-purposed the Hyattsville Hardware Company’s building in 1992 — a year when Hyattsville’s economic growth was fledgling and Route 1 was overrun with used car dealerships and abandoned buildings.

Felix-Thompson then mentioned Chris Vigilante, founder of Vigilante Coffee and its local roastery and cafe in Hyattsville and co-owner of Eco Vapez in Riverdale. Like Franklin, Vigilante “did it correctly in reading what was around him,” she said.

Using what was formerly the first automobile showroom in Hyattsville showcasing Model-T Fords, Vigilante built upon the bones of the historic site. “We wanted a showroom, a showcase for coffee,” he said. “Where the garage held its tools, we hold our tools that make coffee.”

Repurposing seems paramount in the city’s development. For example, the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (CDC) is re-developing the defunct satellite dish on its property into a public work of art, and the community demanded preservation of the library’s iconic ‘saucer’ in the library’s new designs.

With a wide array of projects in development, citizens can’t help but wonder what the future holds for the WSSC building by Magruder Park and the Concordia Lutheran School on Longfellow Street.

The City of Hyattsville, like the merchants four decades ago, is handling these properties patiently, and incorporating feedback from the community.

“There hasn’t been much change in community sentiment for re-development around the WSSC building that I’m aware of,” said Stuart Eisenberg, Executive Director of the Hyattsville CDC.

As for the Concordia Lutheran property, “We would love to do an adaptive re-use of the structure,” he said. But, “the economics of that are always challenging.”

Rapid growth is continually tempered by the city’s bent for preservation. The building on Route 1 which “Beds To Go” formerly operated was “sold to a company that wants to lease it to Advance Auto Parts,” Eisenberg said. “A communique is pending to the owner of the property because they can’t proceed with the project they intend to. One of the issues about the sector plan … new developments can’t become automotive related.”

This aspect of the sector plan will function together with the county’s Master Plan for Parks, Recreation and Open Space, to create a more bicycle friendly route 1. One option of the plan connects a bicycle trail from the Arts District, to Riverdale and University Park.

In a move to fill another vacant property, the city recently attracted Pyramid Atlantic to occupy the Arcade building, offering the paper art company a loan for structural improvements. The city also offers a Commercial Facade Improvement Program which incentivizes businesses to create attractive and art-filled store fronts through financial assistance.

Combined, the efforts are helping to substantiate Hyattsville’s Arts District. Local business owners and city officials are joining to preserve the interests of the public, and those of the merchants who chose community over commerce forty years ago.