Simply giving buildings a facelift and adding parking won’t restore Burtonsville’s struggling village center, but encouraging its thriving ethnic restaurants could be the catalyst it needs.
In a letter to the Gazette, Kim Bobola of Eastern Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board says we can “restore Burtonsville as a center of community activity” by funding improvements proposed by local residents during a charrette held here in 2008. What were the suggestions? New building façades, more parking, and landscaping. That’s it.
These improvements, while possibly necessary, won’t make Burtonsville’s center a more desirable place to visit or do business. Once a rural small town that got absorbed by DC’s suburban sprawl, Burtonsville needs to distinguish itself from surrounding communities. One way it’s already doing that is with food.
I used to spend a lot of time and money in Burtonsville, but this year I have been there exactly twice, and both times it was to have Ethiopian coffee and sambusas at Soretti’s Ethiopian Cuisine. The coffee is excellent, as is the food, and I enjoy that the owner now recognizes my friends and I when we come.
Soretti’s is located on a stretch of Route 198 I call “Restaurant Row.” It’s in the oldest part of Burtonsville, though little of it predates World War II. And while you mainly hear about Burtonsville’s decline, Restaurant Row isn’t doing too badly. In addition to Soretti’s, there’s Chapala, Maiwand Kabob, Old Hickory Grille, and Cuba de Ayer. All have opened within the past several years. All are locally owned and operated by people who mainly live around here. Many have been reviewed favorably by food critics.
Why does Restaurant Row work? Since I moved here in 1999, Burtonsville’s gone from being a town of chicken fingers to one of empanadas with the growing immigrant population in East County. The restaurants are located in old buildings that are likely paid off already, keeping rents low. And while the recently-built Burtonsville Bypass has deprived many local businesses of customers, it may have kept Restaurant Row alive. They’re easier to reach, but still in such an obscure location that chain restaurants wouldn’t be able to push them out.
As anchors for growing immigrant communities, and as one of the few interesting parts of Burtonsville, Restaurant Row is also the only place you’ll actually see people here. The buildings are close enough to Route 198 you can see into dining-room windows while driving by. And even though these restaurants serve food from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Cuba, you’ll see all kinds of people eating there, white, black, brown or whatever.
Economist and foodie Tyler Cowen points out that ethnic restaurants are a sign of economic vitality. People are investing here. They’re just not the ones we expected. “These days,” he writes, “the most authentic, spiciest food comes at cheap, ugly strip malls, far from the District and miles from the Metro.”
Because Burtonsville may be cheap, ugly and suburban, Restaurant Row can develop a surprisingly international and almost urban feel. And this can happen even as the community as a whole continues to act quite conservatively, opposing sidewalks on Route 198, improving Metrobus service, or complaining that the proposed village center green would “attract undesirables.”
Down the street from Restaurant Row, Chevy Chase Bank, Hair Cuttery and Giant will soon open at Burtonsville Town Square, the new strip mall at Route 198 and Old Columbia Pike. If those sound familiar to you, it’s because they’re already at the twenty-year-old Burtonsville Crossing shopping center, which will lose its major tenants this summer when they move across the street. As new construction, the mall will likely be too expensive for local businesses to open there, meaning the many remaining vacancies will be filled by chains.
That’s a net gain of zero new retailers, despite over 100,000 square feet of retail space being added to Burtonsville’s village center. But it’s actually a negative number if you count the dozens of vendors at the Dutch Country Farmers Market, a local institution and proclaimed “town square” of Burtonsville. The goods offered at the so-called “Amish Market” were a kind of ethnic food as well, celebrating local culture while supporting local businesses and bringing people together as well.
But the market moved to Laurel last fall after being evicted by BMC Property Group, who is building the new Burtonsville Town Square. It’s debatable whether the Amish Market could drawn more customers to the shopping center than the chain supermarket that will take its place, but a net loss of retail - specifically retail that can’t be found in every other strip mall in Montgomery County - could still reduce sales.
With the first buildings at Burtonsville Town Square set to open May 1, it remains to be seen whether they’ll bring more shoppers to the village center. If it does, Restaurant Row and other small businesses will hopefully benefit from spillover traffic. But the new development won’t be able to house them, meaning it won’t contribute to Burtonsville’s local economy, its local culture, and its sense of place. If that happens, you’ll still find me at Soretti’s, sipping coffee and watching the cars go by.