The Retail Village at Sycamore & Oak; 1110 Oak Dr., SE
When Le’Greg Harrison was 9 years old, he biked around the former St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital campus to see if the scary stories were true. Harrison grew up hearing rumors about the largely abandoned facility from other neighborhood kids—including one that Jeffrey Dahmer hid out there.
Thirty years later, Harrison is part of a movement that’s bringing new life to the campus in Southeast DC: A temporary 23,000-square-foot retail and community complex opens there this week. It will serve as an incubator for 13 local, Black-owned businesses, all with founders from neighborhoods nearby.
The temporary Congress Heights structure, called the Retail Village, is part of the forthcoming five-acre, 650,000-square-foot development Sycamore & Oak, which will house office space, residential units, a hotel, and green spaces and a pavilion on the former St. Elizabeths campus. The architect is David Adjaye, the lead architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s being co-developed by the real estate group Redbrick LMD and Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs’s social impact organization.
“It was a dark place in the community,” says Harrison of the formerly abandoned area. He was born and raised in Congress Heights and co-founded the fashion and art boutique The Museum DC, which will be one of the groups featured in the Retail Village. Now, “walking by [the new structure] does something for your soul,” he says.
Of the 13 businesses in the incubator, eight are retail, wellness, and art spots such as Vaya Beauty, a spa and store that sells Black-owned beauty lines and products made for melanated skin, and an outpost for the Congress Heights Art & Culture Center. Five will be local food groups such as Afro-Caribbean caterer Tricey’s DC and vegan hot dog spot Glizzys.
All 13 vendors will be part of incubator programs: The “Incubate the Eight” program, co-led by Harrison and a reference to Ward 8, will provide all the business owners with workshops on topics like accounting, raising capital, and customer service. Meanwhile, the food groups will be part of a “Chefs-in-Residence” program spearheaded by the José Andrés Group. More than half of the entrepreneurs behind these groups either head or work at nonprofits on top of running their own businesses. “Everyone has a unique story,” says Harrison.
Community is an important element of Sycamore & Oak: Amid worry that gentrification could displace existing residents, the developers had numerous conversations with neighborhood occupants and took written feedback about what they’d want in the development, says Harrison. Neighborhoods nearby have long been underserved: They’re home to the majority of DC’s “food deserts” and see higher rates of poverty and health issues than the rest of the city. The Retail Village aims to fill some of those gaps: In addition to incubating local businesses, it will employ up to a hundred neighborhood residents and sell fresh produce via The Fresh Food Factory. And, eventually, when the entire Sycamore & Oak development is complete in a few years, it will bring affordable housing and the first full-service hotel east of the river; a new hospital is also planned for the campus. “We feel like this is ours,” says Harrison of the development.
A series of grand-opening events are about to celebrate the Retail Village: A ribbon-cutting with Mayor Muriel Bowser is planned for June 14; a get-together with the Washington Mystics on June 16; a Father’s Day brunch on June 18; and a community celebration on June 19.
Here’s a full list of all the businesses that will be at the Retail Village:
- Black Bella Spa & Wellness Center
- Buna Talk Cafe
- Chris Pyrate & Friends
- Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center
- Dionne’s Good Food
- Fresh Food Factory
- Glizzys DC
- LoveMore Brand
- The Museum DC
- Paradyce Clothing Company
- Tricey’s DC
- Vaya Beauty