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Rebuilding Main Street
Brookland braces for fight against Wal-Mart
(Published August 23, 2004)

Staff Writer

A woman walked into Brookland Hardware on a mission. In her hands was a thin, cylindrical light bulb about a foot long that she needed to replace for one of the cabinets in her home. She told the store owner, Howard Politzer, that she had searched all the large chain hardware stores in the area, but many of them had never even heard of the item called a lumline light, which has declined in use and production.

After searching through the store, every square inch of which is packed with merchandise from ceiling to floor, Politzer pulled out a few dusty boxes of the hard-to-find light bulbs.

Located on the corner of 12th and Monroe streets in Northeast Washington, the hardware store has helped D.C. residents find rare items like the lumline lights for 25 years and has become an anchor business in the Brookland neighborhood.

But progressing plans to build a Wal-Mart in the area may threaten the future of Brookland Hardware and other small businesses lining Brookland’s commercial corridor, many of which have been providing services to the community for years.

The plan also threatens the efforts of Historic Brookland Main Street, an organization of the D.C. Main Street grant program, which seeks to commercially revitalize the area by bringing in new businesses while preserving the existing small businesses.

In response, residents and members of Historic Brookland Main Street, are joining forces to fight the proposal to build the chain discount store next to the Giant Food store in the Brentwood Road shopping center.

The two-block stretch of businesses on 12th Street NE between Otis and Monroe streets serves as the main commercial corridor of the neighborhood. Walking along the strip, located only a block away from the Metro station, it is easy to see why many residents describe Brookland as a village within a city.

The small stores lining the 3500 and 3600 blocks sit at only one or two stories high. Cars moderately traffic the narrow, two lanes of 12th Street, and sporadic individuals stroll the sunny sidewalks that are dotted by a few small trees.

The adjoining streets contain tree-lined sidewalks and neatly kept homes, where residents spend time outside, tending their yards. Only the occasional car passes down these residential roads and the calls of birds and insects pervade the air.

"It has a suburban feel that many other neighborhoods don’t have," said John Feeley, a resident of Brookland for 48 years.

Much of its small-town quality comes from the stability of the neighborhood, Feeley said, a result of the many longtime residents that live there, as well as the small businesses that have consistently dominated 12th Street throughout the years.

"I bet that Wal-Mart will put the business along 12th Street out of business," said Heather Phipps, a two-year Brookland resident active in the campaign against Wal-Mart. Phipps listed Brookland Hardware, CVS Pharmacy and Abstract, an art supply store, as businesses that would be greatly affected by the presence of the department store.

Calling themselves "Concerned Citizens Against Wal-Mart," members of the community held an organizational meeting on Aug. 17 to discuss ways to fight the proposed construction. They plan to engage in an aggressive campaign that includes contacting city officials, such as Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange, Mayor Anthony A. Williams, and Councilman Harold Brazil, D-At Large, who chairs the city council's economic development committee.

Mayor Williams said at his weekly press briefing Aug. 18 that he supports businesses like Wal-Mart coming into the city. He said he understands those businesses are predominantly "big box" stores, but that he advocates giving residents choices in shopping.

In addition to the effect a Wal-Mart could have on local businesses, residents oppose the low-wage jobs offered by the company and cite potential traffic problems that the world's largest retailer would bring to the already busy shopping center if its only D.C. store were located there.

Concerned residents hope to eventually organize a town hall meeting where community members can discuss the proposal with city officials and developers.

If a Wal-Mart is built in the community, it could counter the efforts of Historic Brookland Main Street, a part of the Brookland Community Development Corp. that began in June 2003. The city-funded program works to sustain small businesses by providing them with economic assistance.

Main Street members found that despite the smallness of Brookland, there lies a need for a greater diversity of businesses in the area.

"In terms of business in the community, it’s still largely under-served," said Jim Stiegman, owner of Colonel Brooks Tavern at 901 Monroe St.

Some residents say the main commercial strip on 12th Street -- comprised predominantly of fast food restaurants and service businesses like a dry cleaner, a shoe repair and a drug store -- doesn’t offer much to residents.

"We have the main basic underpinnings for a good neighborhood-serving district, but we don’t have the higher-level food stuff and the sitdown restaurants that the neighborhood is craving," said Donna Hanousek, executive director of Historic Brookland Main Street.

Lavinia Wohlfarth, president of Brookland Main Street, said the program watches for new leases that open up along 12th Street so they can be the first to grab them and insert the type of businesses residents at community meetings told them they wanted, like restaurants and a bookstore.

Main Street and the CDC, for example, renovated the space at 3523 12th St. NE for a new sit-down restaurant called Dean that will be arriving in six weeks.

Residents remember 12th Street having a greater variety of businesses over 35 years ago that offered more for people to do. The CVS Pharmacy on the corner of 12th and Newton streets retains the facade of the movie theater that once occupied the space, with the old marquee and light decoration on top.

Yet, although the types of businesses have changed along the main street, residents say the neighborhood has mostly remained the same.

"Businesses come and go, but I don’t think the neighborhood itself has changed," said Velma B. Johnson, who owns several businesses along the strip with her husband, William E. Johnson.

Main Street organizes events that seem to build on Brookland’s small town feel by encouraging interactions between businesses and residents.

"We try to find ways to bring them together to make decisions about the community," Wohlfarth said.

For example, the program is helping to organize the eighth annual Brookland Festival on Sept. 25, which will include a parade, a trolley bus tour and musical performances, among other activities. Stores along the main street will provide special sales and food for attendees.

The Main Street promotions committee is in the process of organizing the Brookland Celebration of the Arts festival, to be held in May 2005, which looks to introduce residents to a wide variety of artistic fields, such as literary and language arts, performing arts and the culinary arts, Hanousek said.

The event will be ticketed to help raise money for Main Street and, like the Brookland Festival, aims to involve as many local businesses as possible, Hanousek said. Northeast Tae Kwon Do at 3520 12th St. NE, for example, may perform martial arts demonstrations, while restaurants could provide special deals on food.

Every other month, the economic vitality committee hosts a merchant breakfast, where local businesses can meet with residents and seek advice from business development specialists. The next gathering will be held Aug. 24 at Colonel Brooks' Tavern.

In addition to commercial revitalization, Main Street looks to restore the appearance of older neighborhoods, and the buildings along Brookland’s 12th Street "need some freshening up," Hanousek said, listing problems with their facades, lighting, paint, windows and doors.

The design committee is working with the city on devising a streetscape plan to make the streets more attractive, such as by putting the electrical lines that criss-cross the street underground and planting more trees.

But before work begins on this idea, Main Street wants to first complete a transportation study, currently underway, that will focus on fixing traffic issues in the neighborhood, such as speed regulations, lights and signs.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator