CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of David Osei, Redbrick construction manager for the project.
Inside a sunlight-filled, 22,000 square-foot wooden building on St. Elizabeths East, visitors can find everything from gym classes to beauty products to chicken wings. Thirteen of D.C.’s emerging entrepreneurs will offer their wares from inside Sycamore & Oak, an Interim Retail Village (IRV) that opens Wednesday.
“This opportunity was just perfect for me to expand my business to retail,” said Yarné Glascoe, hairstylist and owner of Salon on the Ave. “It’s right here in my own community and we’re investing in our living.”
Glascoe’s new shop, Vaya Beauty, will offer toxin-free beauty products from Black-owned brands.
The Sycamore & Oak project, led by developer Redbrick LMD and the Emerson Collective, aims to incubate community and retail concepts while providing employment opportunities for neighborhood residents.
It will remain in operation for three to five years, Emerson Collective program manager Dana Hall said. After that, the site’s development will continue on to a second, more permanent phase. The physical building—which is made of a modern building material called mass timber and incorporates several other eco-friendly elements—will be disassembled and rebuilt elsewhere.
Meet a Few of the Entrepreneurs
One of the business owners setting up shop in Sycamore & Oak is Joe Houston, owner of WeFitDC, a gym. Houston said his gym will offer fitness classes, personal training, and specialties such as yoga to customers.
“I feel really blessed to do this,” said Houston, 29. “St. Elizabeths is special to me because my mom was once here. I feel like this is a homecoming of sorts.”
WeFitDC will employ five personal trainers “including myself,” Houston said. He would not disclose how much he pays for monthly leasing but said “it is reasonable.”
Next to WeFitDC is the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation Center (CHCDT). The center, based in Ward 8 and led by businesswoman Monica Ray, is designed to train people for jobs, mainly those who reside in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
The CHCDT trains over 100 residents a year for the Washington job market. Earlier this year, the center received $3.5 million from JP Morgan Chase to enhance its training and administrative operations.
The Museum, a clothing firm that specializes in informal casual street wares highlighting fashion and art in concert, operates its second store in the District at the IRV, next to the CHCDT. The Museum was co-founded by Le’Greg Harrison and Muhammad Hill. Their first store stands on Rhode Island Avenue, NE. The Museum has conducted business with such entities as NBA star Steph Curry, sports apparel companies such as Under Armour and FILA and NFL teams such as the Washington Commanders.
Harrison said the IRV store will carry such items as running shoes and polos. They have hired four residents of the neighborhood to work in the store.
“I want to thank the D.C. Department of Employment Services for helping to train our employees,” Harrison said.
Soon, Harrison said he would like to have some of his merchandise with the emblem “Great Day in Congress Heights,” which resembles “Great Day in Crenshaw” for that Los Angeles neighborhood and “Great Day in Harlem” for the legendary New York City area.
Other businesses in the IRV include Black Bella DC’s wellness shop specializing in herbal products and solutions for pain reduction, skincare, antiaging, weight loss and offering natural bath and body goods.
Dionne Reeder, a restaurateur, plans to continue her culinary pursuits by operating Dionne’s that will offer everyday cuisine.
William Passmore, a managing partner at Redbrick, said the initial concept for the site envisioned a “town center” for Congress Heights. The building’s design comes from David Adjaye, the architect behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It features high ceilings and lots of natural light, aiming to balance a sense of open space with a feeling of intimate community.
“In Ward 8 and in Black neighborhoods across the country, we deserve something that looks like like this, that feels like this,” Hall said.
‘Co-Created’ Alongside Community
During the design process for the building, Hall said, Emerson Collective sent out a survey asking the site’s Congress Heights neighbors what they wanted to see from the project. In addition to the restaurants and retail shops, the site includes a large event space with a stage and an outdoor play space for kids. Both of those features, Hall said, came from suggestions in the 350 survey responses the company received.
“We took all of that feedback, we analyzed it, and we incorporated it,” Hall said. “We think of this as a space that was co-created with the neighborhood.”
Efforts to include community members in the process continued even after construction began—Hall said representatives have given more than 300 tours of the property over the last six months. Many of those tours went to curious passersby.
“I see people walking in from the metro pathway, they stop and they start taking pictures,” said David Osei, Redbrick construction manager for the project. “They’re excited about it, and you see a smile on their face.”
Economic Opportunities in an Eco-Friendly Package
The interim retail village’s distinctive look comes, in large part, from the material it’s made of: mass timber, also known as engineered wood. Created by compressing many layers of wood tightly together, mass timber is as strong as steel and—counterintuitively—safer from fire.
Mass timber also requires far less climate pollution to produce than steel or concrete (and to transport, since it’s a lot lighter). Building materials and construction make up about 11% of all carbon emissions globally, according to the World Green Building Council. We need to cut back on carbon and other greenhouse gases in order to stop the planet from continuing to heat up.
Passmore, a managing partner at Redbrick, said that sustainability is a fundamental component of the company’s approach to all of its projects.
“This is a very, very high aspiration project from a sustainability point of view—you could think of it as an attempt to attain national leadership,” Passmore said. “We want to use this as kind of an opportunity to really demonstrate some leading edge technologies.”
Late last month, the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment recognized the project with one of five 2023 Sustainability Awards.
The building at Sycamore & Oak is currently the largest free-standing mass timber building in D.C. The components are designed to be reusable—after three to five years, Redbrick intends to disassemble the interim retail village rebuild it elsewhere. The permanent development set to take its place will also use mass timber as the primary component.
Reusing Water and Capturing Sunlight
In addition to the construction materials, the building’s design incorporates several other sustainability-focused elements. A 7000-gallon cistern will collect rainwater and use it to water plants grown on site; one section of the building features openings in the roof to let in rain and sunlight. Osei, the construction manager, says those plants will one day include fresh produce for use in the building’s restaurants.
“In the future, we plan on adding more to that sustainable design by incorporating more vegetation, so fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices,” Osei said. “Our plan is to utilize all that rainwater and all that sunlight to grow this vegetation, and then hand it right back to the vendors.”
The site’s water systems can also collect and release up to 140,000 gallons of rainwater annually. Capturing stormwater runoff, particularly during heavy rain events, can help prevent flooding and reduce the amount of pollution from city streets entering nearby waterways.
“For local typical developers, their goal is to get the water off site as much as possible,” Osei said. “But we asked ourselves a ton of difficult questions like ‘how do we use the rainwater on site?’”
Redbrick also plans to install solar panels on the building’s large roof, but the design has yet to be finalized. The building is fully electric, which means gas won’t be used for cooking or heating.
The Obvious Question: Isn’t That Expensive?
Passmore said that, as far as he knew, the D.C. government had not specified that it wanted sustainability-focused project when the city put out a request for proposals to redevelop St. Elizabeths East. That’s something of a limitation when it comes to scaling up the innovations included in the project; while both Emerson Collective and Redbrick prioritize sustainability, few other developers will likely follow their example without specific policy incentives.
Project representatives would not say how much the project would cost overall. Mass timber still has higher upfront costs than more traditional materials, though some research suggests that it actually has slightly lower costs over the entire lifetime of the building. It’s also much quicker to build with, since the pieces are prefabricated off-site.
“This building went up very, very quickly, because when it arrives, it’s almost like Lincoln Logs,” Passmore said. “So you save some money like that—you don’t have to borrow money from the bank for as long, you don’t need your investors to be invested as long, in order to get through the build.”
Passmore said building with mass timber at the site still made the project “a little more expensive,” but that he expected costs associated with the material to go down over time as the market for it grows. He said he also expects the costs to construct buildings that produce as much energy as they use will come down as well.
“We’re discovering that if you build a building very judiciously, and you’re careful about how many materials you use in the building, and where you put the windows, and you think about where the sun is—you can make the building more efficient,” he said. “In addition to making the building more sustainable, that actually reduces costs… we’re starting to see that sustainable buildings don’t need to be more expensive.”