Photo by ZanyShani on Flickr.

Once a bustling district, Rhode Island Avenue NE is currently home to little more than series of boarded-up shops, storefront churches and vacant lots.  Pop-up stores, which have been appearing elsewhere in DC, could prove to be a great remedy for the area’s economy and an excellent starting point for turning the neighborhood around.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Rhode Island Avenue was a busy streetcar thoroughfare, connecting downtown DC with streetcar suburbs of Mt. Rainier, Maryland. This route supported a diverse cadre of businesses, from restaurants to small boutique shops. 

However, the removal of the streetcar in the 1960s, coupled with an increase in crime, led the once great avenue down an unfortunate path.

In recent decades, small business have all but disappeared from the area, and in recent years, even larger establishments, such as the National Wholesale Liquidators and the Safeway at the Rhode Island Avenue Center strip mall have closed their doors. 

With only a few tenants left, the mall’s sprawling parking lots never exceed 50% capacity, even on weekends.  Indeed, the lot’s landlord even offers “commuter parking” for the nearby Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

The former Safeway, closed in 2010, has stood vacant, with little sign of activity, for over a year.  When it closed, the grocery chain noted that the location had been unprofitable for over 10 years.  Grocery stores serve as important community anchors and allow other forms of retail to flourish nearby.  This is especially true for this strip mall, which is detached from the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. 

Rhode Island Avenue north of Brentwood fares no better. Despite stretches that see over 30,000 vehicles per day, businesses along the avenue are anything but diverse.  Sit-down restaurants tend to avoid this part of town, despite plenty of potential customers.  The only new food establishments to open recently are a Rita’s Custard Shop and a breakfast/brunch-only diner.

Nearby residents lament the lack of retail, but although the area has no shortage of space for new businesses to move in, the high upfront costs of opening shop coupled with the neighborhood’s reputation pose an enormous to traditional establishments that might even consider the area as their base.  In “up and coming” neighborhoods, entrepreneurs may be hesitant to open businesses despite low rents and high traffic volumes.  Many business owners don’t want to be roped into a long-term lease if the future of the neighborhood remains uncertain.

With lower operating costs and a greater dependence on readily available, affordable property, pop-up stores might prove to be a great option for Rhode Island Avenue.  And, the so-called pop-up businesses might already have some examples to follow in Northeast. 

In the Rhode Island Avenue Center, a car-wash and Mr. P’s BBQ truck have set-up shop and attract a loyal following of both locals and visitors.  On weekends, impromptu flea markets appear and attract residents from Edgewood and other close-by neighborhoods. 

Within the vacant former Safeway space, an indoor flea or farmers’ market might fit in nicely, especially in cooler weather.  Since Safeway’s departure last year, residents of nearby Edgewood and Eckington have had to travel to the Brentwood Giant to get groceries; adding an indoor, semi-permanent farmers’ market might make their lives a little easier (and tastier).

On the other side of town, in Mt. Pleasant, an ingenious concept called the “Temporium” made use of underutilized retail space on Mt. Pleasant Street NW.  Despite being a temporary facility, the space attracted 6,800 visitors and made over $31,000 in sales the last month it was open. 

However, before significant development can occur on Rhode Island Avenue, the corridor needs to see some substantial improvements to the area’s transportation infrastructure.  Currently, the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood metro station serves the area, but it lacks adequate neighborhood access. 

There are plans to build a ramp across the CSX/MARC/Amtrak line, which would eliminate the circuitous walk or perilous rail crossing to the shopping center and could begin construction in 2012.  DDOT has also included Rhode Island Avenue in its Phase II streetcar plan, but this addition should be preceded with a Circulator route or other frequent bus service.

Eventually, the entire corridor will need to adopt a comprehensive plan (such as the one produced during the Fenty administration by the DC Planning Office), but, in the meantime, short-term solutions, such as pop-up stores, exist to improve the livability of the area and make the neighborhoods that surround it more appealing.