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Pop-up stores could be key to Rhode Island Ave rebirth

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.

Photo by ZanyShani on Flickr.

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.

Originally from New Jersey, John moved to DC in 2006 to attend American University and became an avid urbanist. He now lives in Northeast DC and works in environmental advocacy. 


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Bus service along Rhode Island Avenue needs major improvement. When I drive along it, I almost never see a bus. Route 1 could be a major transit route with improved bus service, creating more demand for business and residences along the avenue.

by Steve on Nov 9, 2011 2:52 pm • linkreport

I came on here to point out you forgot about the (substantial) bus services along RI, only to see Steve said the opposite!

As a resident that lives on the street, I can attest to the fact that we have a lot of transit options. I'm southwest of the metro stop, and am served by the G8 bus along the avenue. Going NE there are several others -- several that go to Mount Ranier and beyond.

What really needs to happen to liven up the area is improve pedestrian infrastructure. The sidewalks along Rhode Island are in terrible shape and in several place very narrow.

Pedestrian traffic is already present to go to and from the metro; improving the sidewalks and adding store fronts would cater to them (me!) as well as attract additional pedestrian activity, and a benevolent cycle is born.

The pipe dream would be to get rid of the strip malls that break up the area entirely. Both (homes of (formerly) Safeway and Giant) are up hills with poor access if you happen to be without a car. Do some infill, please!

by Elle on Nov 9, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

Pop-up stores are nice but Rhode Island needs better transit so people can actually get to those stores. Circulator is a great idea.

It's mind boggling that the Safeway closed due to unprofitability. It seems like DC doesn't have nearly enough grocery stores as evidenced by the ridiculous lines at most of them.

by Falls Church on Nov 9, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

The easiest way to revitalize the corridor would be to re-build the trolley line. That would of course hurt the car commuters who would have to negociate the road with the trolleys, but the city has been paying for the suburban subsidy for decades.

by Thayer-D on Nov 9, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport


I would agree with you on the number of bus lines, but they are very disjointed and don't give the corridor any sort of cohesive feel. The G8 cuts up toward Brookland at 4th and all the 80's buses start at the Rhode Island Station and run Northeast toward MD. I would suggest a Circulator-like line that would 1) run frequently and reliably, 2) pave the way for a rebuilt streetcar line, and 3) make the area more accessible for visitors.

One of my biggest gripes about the area (which I should've touched on in the post) is the shabby state of the sidewalks, especially south of the Metro. There are stretches where sidewalks become tripping hazards and aren't even wide enough for 2 pedestrians to pass one another.

by John Marzabadi on Nov 9, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

@John Marzabadi and Steve: I don't know what you're talking about with the buses. I'm a Mount Rainier resident and take the 80s or T18 buses (that all meet at Mt Rainier and go to the RI Ave Station down RI Avenue) on a daily basis.
With so many bus lines meeting at Mount Rainier and going into DC, that means the rush hour frequency is 5 minutes or less, and even late into the evening, at 10-20 minutes, with very late night service (every 30 minutes) ended at 1230a on weekdays, and 230a weekends. They all stop at the same stops - I'm not sure what John means by disjointed or that Steve never sees buses when he is driving.

The G8 is seperate from those RI Ave buses, and is really serving Brookland, Woodridge, and the northwestern part of Mount Rainier.

I know you're really wanting to advocate for return of streetcar service, but service on the 82 Maryland Line wasnt much more frequent. I agree with Elle on the streetscape issues, though.

by Jarrett on Nov 9, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

I'm pretty sure that the Safeway was unprofitable, because everyone shopped at the nearby Giant instead, which in spite of all of its horribleness, still managed to be a better store than the Safeway.

by andrew on Nov 9, 2011 4:14 pm • linkreport

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

@John: also - there were far, far more greater reasons for the decline of RI Ave than the removal of the streetcar. That happened across the city, and it didn't plunge the stores in Georgetown and Cathedral Heights along Wisconsin Avenue into crime-filled chaos. Many other social and economic factors.

by Jarrett on Nov 9, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

Supposedly the new apartments being built right by the Rhode Island Ave metro will include retail. The "Rhode Island Row" website claims the new "urban community" will have restaurants, shops, and a "Main Street scene," whatever that means. Unfortunately though, the "main street" will not actually be on Rhode Island Ave, but rather in between two of the rows of apartments. I'm sure this piss poor urban design was intentional, since it allows this "luxury" complex to be isolated from the surrounding neighborhood, which is likely perceived by many potential tenants as sketchy.

Also, while I'm complaining - whoever chose the exterior finishes on those apartments should be fired. Way too many different colors and cheap-looking finishes. Ugh.

by Rebecca on Nov 9, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

Re-introducing the streetcar need not disrupt the flow of cars. On the MD side (Rt.1) the road is only two lanes wide. It turns to 3 as soon as it hits Eastern. Traffic flows, for the most part, quite freely. There is really no need for 3 lanes on RIA AT LEAST until the Metro stop and probably past that.

by thump on Nov 9, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

@Rebecca: Another reason it was likely internally focused - aside from the issue of trying to build street-level retail on such a steep slope - was that the majority of boardings at Rhode Island Avenue station occur by bus - it's a major transfer point as I mention above. This data (see page 66) has more than 50% of station access occuring by feeder bus, which arrive right at the station, not at RI Ave. In addition, each of the boardings and alightings for that station will have walkers or bikers pass through that retail as they exit - it honestly makes the most sense, in order to guarentee the maximum audience (especially later in evenings, when many people are waiting for buses and want to get some shopping done or get a cup of coffee).

It's not planned as a huge luxury complex - 20% are below market and there was HUD financing involved. And Brentwood is definetly still not a upscale area. But given the disinvestment in that area for decades, it's not a bad start to revitalizing the corridor.

by Jarrett on Nov 9, 2011 4:53 pm • linkreport

@ Jarrett:
"With so many bus lines meeting at Mount Rainier and going into DC, that means the rush hour frequency is 5 minutes or less.."

I don't disagree with the frequency of the 80's buses, but something is clearly not working here. They serve as commuter lines primarily, connecting residents of upper Ward 5 with the metro, whereas Circulator provides neighborhood connections as well as commuter service.

Also, should clarify that I wasn't asserting that those two factors alone were the cause of the decline, but had a significant role in keeping it that way too.

@Rebecca: Rhode Island Row has been frustrating me as well. Aside from its poor aesthetics and urban design (which basically allows the residents of the luxury complex to live in a cocoon), I haven't heard of ONE retailer signing onto the complex, which is set to open by winter.

by John Marzabadi on Nov 9, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

for the most part, pop up stores open up in places with high density and a great deal of street traffic.


There are "temporary" uses you can do with these buildings, but it's a long drawn out process. See the Pittsfield, MA Storefront Artist Project...

by Richard Layman on Nov 9, 2011 5:07 pm • linkreport

@John, according to this post from Urban Turf, the Rhode Island Row retail isn't set to open until March, with an announcement about retail tenants toward the end of this year.

As a resident of Brookland and Red Line commuter, I agree with Jarrett that Rhode Island Row is a good start in this location. I walk through there daily and will certainly make use of the shops and restaurants that open there. That they front the new main street instead of Rhode Island is an advantage from my perspective, since I wouldn't walk down that block of RIA on a regular basis.

by SEM on Nov 9, 2011 5:24 pm • linkreport

One of the things that could really help RI Ave serve as something other htan a pass-through for cars is if bikeshare expanded into Northeast. Currently, Capital Bikeshare station density is high in Wards 1, 2, and 6, but practically nonexistent in Ward 5. Besides Florida Ave. and 4th St. NE, and a handful of stations clustered around Brookland Metro, there is no way to use Bikeshare to get around this area.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 9, 2011 5:37 pm • linkreport

I don't disagree with the frequency of the 80's buses, but something is clearly not working here. They serve as commuter lines primarily, connecting residents of upper Ward 5 with the metro, whereas Circulator provides neighborhood connections as well as commuter service.

Uh, what? The stop spacing along Rhode Island for the 80s and T18 is pretty much identical to Circulator stop spacing. Only the rush-hour only 84 doesn't stop at all on Rhode Island Avenue.

I don't get the difference between circulator service and 80s/T18 bus service here. The 80s buses are running at less than a 5 minute headway at peak hours. They run at about 10 minutes until during the day and until 7 or 8.

How is this different than a Circulator line that is doing the exact same thing? It sounds like you just want a branded bus on the corridor (which is fine, and understandable - and I agree there needs to be a better marketing campaign a la PikeRide for the Rhode Island Avenue buses).

by Jarrett on Nov 9, 2011 6:03 pm • linkreport

Yes, it would be nice if CaBi could be sprinkled up the corridor. Maybe right at the station, @RIA & 14th, @RIA @ 18th in front of the library (minor spot), and RIA & S.Dakota.

I've walked many times from RIA & 18th to the Giant and the corridor is not pleasant. The Rite Aid is a strip mall and the is a Midas shop with a long, blank wall against the street. Additionally, the sidewalks are not in good shape.

As someone mentioned above, there are opportunities for infill and there are already some taller apartment buildings. I don't know about the zoning, but it seems like a corridor for added density within a block or two of avenue itself. Create a main street type feel that is lacking on 12th St.

by Rob P. III on Nov 9, 2011 6:23 pm • linkreport

@ Rob P. III "Yes, it would be nice if CaBi could be sprinkled up the corridor.  Maybe right at the station, @RIA & 14th, @RIA @ 18th in front of the library (minor spot), and RIA & S.Dakota."

The best way to register support for CaBi stations is to spend a few moments with the crowdsourcing map.

captcha: over the top with a string of six kanji.

by cabi addict on Nov 9, 2011 7:52 pm • linkreport


It's true that bus service on the Rhode Island Avenue corridor is better than in most outlying areas of the city, it could still use a lot of improvement. Midday on weekdays, the scheduled frequency drops to one bus every 15 minutes, meaning that when buses are off-schedule or missing (which seems to happen too frequently), wait times can exceed a half hour. Weekends are worse, with scheduled wait times around 20 minutes.

Part of the problem is due to poor scheduling and coordination between bus lines that originate in different places. If you compare the schedules of the lines which share Rhode Island Avenue, you'll see a fair amount of scheduled, weekday bus bunching -- for example a T18 scheduled to arrive one minute after an 86, and then a 15-minute gap until the next bus.

Although I wish that bikeshare was a usable alternative to the bus, this corridor is a nightmare for cyclists. The drivers that I see on Rhode Island Avenue (especially on the DC section) are some of the most angry and aggressive motorists that I encounter in the DC area. The commercial vans and pickup trucks seem to be especially bad. (Other cyclists have apparently become aware of this too, given the recent incident where a pickup driver deliberately sideswiped a cyclist.)

Rhode Island Avenue Northeast has a long way to go...

by jcs on Nov 9, 2011 10:19 pm • linkreport

@jcs: Agreed on the midday bus headways, although that isn't much different than other lines in the city (S2/S4, 70s, etcetera) when there are missed runs).

My main reason for writing was to correct the misperception about transit service in the corridor. Again, the issue is better branding and information, not a Circulator line (again, not sure why the author was asking for a level of transit service that already existed)

by Jarrett on Nov 9, 2011 11:55 pm • linkreport

Might a suggest a map for every article you post? Some of us are not familiar with every location in DC. Half the time I spend on this site is taken up on Google Maps trying to figure out exactly which area you're talking about, what parking lot, etc.

by OX4 on Nov 10, 2011 6:37 am • linkreport

FWIW, Rhode Island Ave. has the same problem that Upper Georgia Ave. has, although it's worse for Rhode Island, under-dense residential population abutting the corridor. That's why retail doesn't work there. If there were people, it'd be thriving. (E.g., you need about 30,000 to 40,000 people to support 50,000 s.f. of retail.)

Of course the bus services are commuter oriented. Most everyone who lives in Woodridge has a car and drives. (Just like Upper Georgia Avenue. Darren Buck, a student at VT planning, has nice maps of the city's car density, I would bet that that part of DC is very high, just like Upper NW DC.)

Note though that years ago in the DC Alternatives Analysis I suggested a Rhode Island streetcar (later DDOT agreed, but years after the DCAA was finished). When I lived in Mount Rainier, I mentioned that to someone and he had an even better idea--starting a streetcar from Dupont Circle. (Note that separately in the mid1990s, MD MTA did a streetcar study for Rhode Island Ave. in Maryland in association with plans for the Gateway Arts District.)

To start revitalization of the blocks capable of it (I don't remember the block number, but around where Rita's is) you need a great restaurant. Restaurants seed revitalization see Revisiting Richard's Rules for Restaurant-Based Revitalization.

In 2007 or 2008, I suggested to Brennan Proctor (Uncle Brutha) that he take the building that is now an art gallery (it has a basement where he could have produced his sauces) and make it a restaurant-market. (The building is my favorite on the stretch, high ceilings, double wide storefront, great glass windows.)

See, that kind of transformational business could begin re-seeding the corridor for retail, not unlike how the Argonaut helped to reposition H Street NE.

But he wasn't willing. He looked at a couple of other places, but decided to not develop that kind of concept. (My point was that the food entrees should feature use of the various different hot sauces that he sold, when he had a retail store in the Eastern Market district on 7th St. SE--most of what he sold he didn't make.)

by Richard Layman on Nov 10, 2011 6:42 am • linkreport


Thanks for sticking up for RI Transit! There really is a ton of it if people would get over streetcars. (Which are lovely, but expensive. And what's there now isn't broken, so why waste the money when it could be put to better use?)

Streetcars or a Circulator won't fix a thing if there aren't destinations along the route. The transit infrastructure is there -- what is missing is retail and pedestrian infrastructure. So why not pour money into streetscape, small business incubation, and infill development of the strip malls?

Continuing to invest in transit in the area won't do anything to improve the neighborhood -- it will just keep it easy to pass through the district. Which is what most folks do now.

by Elle on Nov 10, 2011 8:05 am • linkreport

One thing that could help is having atleast one bus travel south of Rhode Island Ave Station pass the station to somewhere north of it. Currently the only bus that travels south from the station is the P6, it would be nice if they had a line similar to the G8 that instead of going turning up 4th Street went to Rhode Island Ave Station so there would be better connections between both sides of the tracks.

by kk on Nov 10, 2011 8:33 am • linkreport

Of course the bus services are commuter oriented. Most everyone who lives in Woodridge has a car and drives.

Not true. Plenty of low/moderate-income, elderly, young, and car-less folks that live there without a car. And again, I'm not sure how a bus service that is just about as frequent as every other major bus line (S2/S4, N2/4, etcetera) is called commuter oriented.

However, Richard is right - the density isn't super-high (most census tracts are in the 5000-6000 per square mile, which isn't horribly low either). And the lack of major destinations means that yes, it is essentially commuter oriented.

The high level of transit means that accessibility is HIGH - it's a result of so many bus lines interleaving together. So take advantage of that accessibility.

@Elle - thanks! Just wanted to set the story straight. A lot of people discussing transit in this thread don't seem to be that familiar with the corridor, even though they're discussing it.

Richard - also, retail was doing fine decades ago on Rhode Island Ave. You're making it sound like the corridor was never viable. It totally was.

by Jarrett on Nov 10, 2011 9:31 am • linkreport

The argument for streetcars over buses is the same one it's been for years. Developers would much rather invest on a street car line becasue it's seen as permanent and reliable. Buses have to share the road with cars stuck in traffic unlike streetcars.

by Thayer-D on Nov 10, 2011 9:35 am • linkreport

Developers would much rather invest on a street car line becasue it's seen as permanent and reliable. Buses have to share the road with cars stuck in traffic unlike streetcars.

@Thayer-D: Streetcars don't share the road? Where? Then you've never seen streetcars in the US or most places, because they don't have their own dedicated lanes. And neither do the ones planned on Rhode Island Avenue. The H Street one certainly isn't.

I live in Mount Rainier - if the streetcar runs to MtR to downtown, you can bet that in terms of travel time that I'm going to take the bus in. I have the choice of an express bus (84) or a number of other buses that aren't going to get stuck behind a rail transit vehicle that's running in a shared traffic lane and can't go around.

by Jarrett on Nov 10, 2011 10:11 am • linkreport

Um, Ward1Guy, et al, there's a large CaBi station at 4th and Rhode Island, just a few blocks from the Metro, and Rhode Island Row is trying to get one. I'm SURE that one will come along with the ramp to the MBT. There's also 2 Zipcar lots in the area! Hey, look, the poor idiots in Brentwood canz do urbanizm too!

You talk about this area as if nothing is happening, despite RIR, another luxury condo development at 4th and RI, numerous flips in my neighborhood, existing local businesses growing their customer base and expanding hours, etc. Sure, we could use more of all of this stuff, but it's happening. You just might actually have to GO to the neighborhood on occasion to see it.

by Ms. D on Nov 10, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

Jarrett --

1. yes there are many households without transit, but they by definition mostly don't have the kind of disposable income necessary to revitalize local retail.

2. yes, RI retail thrived in the 1920s and 1930s when the retail sector was organized much differently and there were no such things as shopping malls and big box stores and most people went downtown to do their major shopping.

3. 5000/6000 people per census tract. Steve Belmont's _Cities in Full_ says you need about double that for traditional commercial districts to be successful in today's retail conditions.

Of course, the downside is that most convenience retail--that is practical retail like hardware, food, and pharmacy--is done at a larger scale and isn't in our traditional commercial districts, which means mostly that TCDs renew through being entertainment and discretionary retail destinations and by definition discretionary retail means the sales of stuff that by and large people don't need.

by Richard Layman on Nov 10, 2011 11:34 am • linkreport

aargh. sorry. I meant households without cars.

2. note also the relative lack of success of retail in the Gateway Arts District over the past 5 years as evidenced by repeated business failure, with the exception of the new retail opened in the EYA/Pulte Hyattsville development, + Franklin's Restaurant and maybe the yarn shop across the street.

I argue it results from similar issues, although that area of RI Ave. has even less population than the comparable area in Woodridge.

by Richard Layman on Nov 10, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

@Ms. D I specifically mentioned the 4th St. CaBi station you refer to. Problem is, there is nowhere up RI to ride it to one-way (no other stations).

I certainly nominated or seconded Ward 5 locations on the crowdsourcing map, and I hope others do too. I also hope you're right about new CaBi stations coming into the area. I just don't see them yet.

Much of this debate about whether we need transit, retail, residential density, or other amenities to help this area take off is like debating which came first, the chicken or the egg. Somebody has the make the first move. Rhode Island Row is a good start. Connecting the MBT and the RI Metro station would be another step in the right direction. Streetcars, high-density housing, infill and popup retail, all good. All the development by Abdo and EYA around Brookland/CUA metro will also help.

by Ward 1 Guy on Nov 10, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

Sorry, Ward 1. Just reacting to a lot of these comments that act like NOTHING is happening around here. Things are! Yes, we need more, as I mentioned. But over the last 2+ years of living here (Brentwood) I have seen many positive changes, and I know that more are in the works. I do think there are parts of the RIR development that are ugly, but I also own an apartment in the area (in addition to my primary home) that is so not as convenient or nice as RIR, and never have any trouble renting it out, leading me to believe that the siding and paneling won't be an issue.

Hopefully what appears to be the inevitable ousting of Thomas will help. Yes, we need better sidewalks and pedestrian amenities. Yes, we need better promotion on both the residential and retail front. I know my (now) pals down at MGM Roast Beef were surprised to find out about me & the BF & my neighbors and our high incomes when we first moved in, but now they're adding a dining room and bar, because they know we (and others) are here and want a neighborhood place to hang out. Right after we moved in, the traffic circle went in, making it easier and safer to both drive and walk through that intersection. Again, yes we need more, but it's slowly happening. I think the 10+ new neighbors I've acquired in the last year, at consistently increasing prices, would attest to this.

by Ms. D on Nov 14, 2011 8:06 pm • linkreport

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