Housing Complex

Is There Hope for Woodridge?

On the western end of the eastern half of Rhode Island Avenue NE, 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 streets, 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 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).

The problem hasn't lacked for examination. 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—neighborhood developer EYA* has already done its big placemaking project on the Maryland side of Rhode Island Avenue, with the Metro-proximate Hyattsville Arts District.

Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. 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.

Meanwhile, 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.”

* Edited to reflect the fact that Jair Lynch is not a part of the Hyattsville Arts District development.

Photos by Lydia DePillis

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  • OL

    This article omits the Woodridge Public Library at 18th & Rhode Island. It attracts a good number of patrons daily and has two books fairs a years. It also omits the new Langdon Dog Park on 20th Street, just 3 blocks south of Rhode Island. It also omits that Rhode Island Avenue will be a Streetcar line under Phase 2 of the DC Streetcar program. It also omits its vicinity to Mount Rainier, where a fair number of residents go for better dining options and shopping options. It also omits the newly formed Rhode Island Avenue Task Force that everyone can participate in to fill the gap in waiting for the government and private investors to take action by enpowering the residents and other concerned citizens with finding a vision for that Rhode Island Avenue and bringing new life to the corridor. For so long the residents have not taken even the simplest steps, now this Task Force can unite them to take action.

  • s

    please stop overdeveloping the District. Woodridge is a neighborhood where a solid community working class people live. Not every neighborhood needs to be transformed into the East Village in order to be a viable place to live. Some changes make sense. But the way these neighborhoods are systematically gutted of the poor and working-- by rising rents, by landlords mistreating tenants in order to offload property to developers, by development companies with loads of money to promote their corporate agendas by convincing the transient population to all move into a neighborhood and squeeze out longtime (and sometimes undesirable) businesses, the old, the disadvantaged, and the jobless -- it dispenses with the reality of urban areas as places where the diversity of income creates a mix of people. Developers have convinced the District government that creating an environment for higher tax brackets is the best method to help the city pay its way -- and that is the biggest sham of all. Speed is money, and speed never endures. Without careful consideration and longterm planning that takes into account the community that will exist there in the future, Woodridge will turn into another loud bar crawl with glass and steel condos to stumble back to the night before you fly out for your new private industry job in Texas. The principles of altermodernism that have been inscribed into the urban development philosophy over the last ten years exist solely for the use of the wealthy -- they're not for the rest of us.

  • Mike

    I don't mean to point out the obvious but higher tax brackets do help the city pay its way. Schools, Police, Firefighters, and Parks don't just feed off of the money tree they have out back. More tax money = more nice shit.

  • OL

    @Mike & @s, I think that's why there are so many liquor stores on Rhode Island, because they do add to the tax base. The quality of the neighborhoods on Rhode Island Avenue has definitely deteriorated. Oddly enough, in no way did Rhode Island Avenue benefit from the economic boom before the 2008 crash. The project now called Rhode Island Row was planned nearly a decade ago. So, things just happen slowly in that neck of DC. The neighboring communities, like Brookland and Mount Rainier really haven't set a good example. Even in Blommingdale, the residents don't have a grocery store. They go to the Harris Teeter in NoMa. The Windows Cafe sells very few items fresh item, and are high in price.

  • SLA

    DC has set aside $16.5 million to rebuild the Woodridge Library: http://www.brooklandheartbeat.org/winter11_woodridge.html

  • JustMe

    S is right. Developing Woodbridge will cause the following problems:

    Increased traffic
    Less street parking
    Additional commerce, which, as we all know, leads to bad things
    The presence of business owners who "make money off of the community" and "think they're better than us" rather than getting a good 9-5 job like an honest person
    It would interfere with Woodbridge's "character" which depends on being mainly residential without the dirty, disgusting sullying of the area that comes with the ability to purchase food or engage in other retail activity.
    It will lead to increased tax revenue which, as we know, is not the job of Woodbridge but the job of commercial tenants on K Street.
    There may be a poor, innocent tree that might get cut down in the "development" process, and what did that tree ever do to you?

    So, yes, I agree with S. Respect the community! No more development! No stores! No restaurants!

  • Sanford

    This is a working class community with an aray of Section 8, house squattesr, drug runners, prostitutes and their associated pimps, doppers, house break-in artist, Pot growing warehouses, and vendors from out of state, who are masquerading as helping the glacoma, and aids community (what they really are is a group that is profiteering on others misery),lastly a number of kids of school age not going to school, whose parents could care less about, and others, they do not want improvements to the community, because they will be the first to get moved out of the Woodridge neighborhood. Removing these citizens out would improve the neighborhood 3 fold. As a disabled veteran I am sick and tired of dealing with this lot.

    The people who write the crap that we are taken away these non-productive citizens ability to survived is full of it, most of these citizens other than the ederly and disabled are the ones that are making it difficult for e and mine pay twice for our right to live and have a little pease and tranquility, where we live. I participate in the community big time...so it is not as though I am not working for improvements. This is poorly written because I can not say what I want in the format that the community trash would understand.,

  • SLA

    I'm assuming that "JustMe" is being sarcastic. I'd like to note that it's WoodRIDGE. Not WoodBRIDGE (that's in Virginia).

  • er

    OL, What are the dining and shopping options in Mount Rainier?

  • s

    hi Mike, I don't know about you, but I don't have "more nice shit" on my list of life's aspirations. I'd like to live a neighborhood where I know my neighbors and know that they are different than I am. And while living alongside them, I'd refrain supporting corporate and community initiatives that would affect their ability to live near me. To assume that adding amenities to 'promote' a neighborhood to a higher tax bracket serves as a win for everyone is to feign obliviousness to results that have demonstrated themselves in Dupont, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, 17th Street, U Street, Petworth and Shaw. To take that into account -- and the fact that these neighborhoods have this promotional model pushed on them by developers migrating strategies from other places around the country -- is to introduce beleaguered suburban sprawl to already densely packed areas.

    It'd be like saying we should open a King of Prussia-style mall in Celebration, Florida. Just because more people would go doesn't necessarily mean that one should be built. The market doesn't correct everything.

  • JustMe

    I don't have "more nice shit" on my list of life's aspiration

    "This is why we can't have nice things."

    introduce beleaguered suburban sprawl to already densely packed areas.

    Actually, developers end up introducing density. It's the people like yourself who are promoting more suburban sprawl because people can't move into the city core and housing and amenities are more available in the suburban sprawl.

    I see this again and again in DC-- the attitude that having public and retail amenities are somehow participating in a form of insidious behavior that shouldn't sully the neighborhood. Part of it, also, is a sort of form of jealousy and resentment towards local business owners and the act of business ownership.

  • OL

    @er asked "What are the dining and shopping options in Mount Rainier?" If you haven't discovered Joe's Movement Emporium, you've really missed out. They have lots of great programs for adults and children. They even have a few free yoga classes on a weekly basis. I remember when Joe's was a storefront studio. You'll be amazinginly surprised with joesmovement.org. Most of the action in Mount Rainier is on 34th Street. They have Glut (a whole foods cooperative), and several eateries, a latin flower shop, and clothes shops.

  • d

    Really? Why do opponents of fixing RIA always scream that "OMG it's gonna turn into H Street, Adams Morgan, etc". NO ONE IS ADVOCATING FOR THAT, so stop with that straw-man BS argument. I moved to Woodridge for the quiet neighborhood, pretty homes and good neighbors. What I DON"T LIKE are the lack of eating and shopping options on RIA. What I HATE are the abandoned properties, prostitutes and crime. We can have SMART growth that brings revenue to the area without severely impacting parking and the other things people worry about. I sure as heck don't want an H Street here. But I'd really like a nice sit down restaurant. What is the problem with that?

    ER - there are plenty of good food options right up the road in Hyattesville!

  • er

    i have checked joe's out. i just don't consider them dining of shopping options."several eateries"? what are they? all i can think of are z pizza, the place next to glut, and the seafood takeout joint. none of which are worth going out of your way for. are there others that are worth the trip? i do go out of my way for glut though.

  • CEH

    Thanks for this article! Woodridge is truly a hidden gem in the district. As a long time resident, I can say that our neighborhood is notable because of its diversity of housing stock--bungalows to row homes to brick homes--and being close to downtown. By the way, the areas mentioned in this article used to be a thriving strip back in the 60's and 70's and I am confident that we can bring it back to its heyday. And for the record, yes, we DO want the boarded up buildings to go and to have the amenities that other parts of D.C. have such as restaurants and grocery stores. Thanks!

  • Dave

    I simply cannot see how RIA in its current state is a desirable thing for any of the residents of Woodridge. Do you honestly enjoy walking by boarded-up storefronts, having to leave your neighborhood to make essential purchases, having no places to drop off dry cleaning, pick up prescriptions, get a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, and dealing with the associated crime and other social ills that results from derelict properties and under-investment?

    Believe it or not, it is possible to have a functioning, close-knit neighborhood replete with commercial amenities that does *not* turn into H Street, Adams Morgan or Georgetown. Were I a Woodridge resident, I would have no tolerance for those who would actively seek to keep desirable, viable businesses out of my neighborhood due to some faulty belief that the opening of a coffee shop or burger joint automatically turns RIA into U Street. That is utter nonsense, and is the type of thinking that has so many neighborhoods in the NE and SE quadrants of the city stuck with little-to-no commercial activity.

    It isn't like this in most other U.S. cities, folks.

  • JA


    There's Urban Eats on RI Ave which has a pretty large menu (and serves alcohol). They host a lot of events and have pretty decent food. It serves both a sit down restaurant and cafe function. (http://www.facebook.com/urbaneatsmd?sk=info). They also do job training for youth - the owners used to operate a place on Barracks Row.

    There's also Sweet and Natural next to Glut, which is take-out, but is all vegan and have a rotating menu every day.

    And a little further out, but there's the Busboys, Tara Thai, Franklins, and all the other plcaes in downtown Hyattsville bout a mile up the road.

  • er


    i didnt know about urban eats. thank you!
    are people in woodridge more inclined to go to the restaurants in hyattsville over places in dc?

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  • Maya

    I have lived in Woodridge since 1998 (does that make me an old timer?), and the retail strip at 22 & RI is about the same as it was then. I would welcome new shops and restaurants there. I have been going up to Glut, Franklin's, and now the Hyattsville Arts District a lot more than I go to the shops on RI Ave. We do have Rita's which is a nice place to walk to in the summer. And the Flip It II bakery at 16th and RI is pretty good. I think there is potential for more businesses like these here.

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