Civic News
DEI / Entrepreneurs / Urban development

A year later, this Congress Heights retail space for Black founders continues serving up fresh food, apparel and beauty products

Sycamore & Oak has seen about 80,000 visitors since its opening last June while training over 100 people in different jobs.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (center stage in beige suit) and others at the June 2023 ribbon-cutting for Sycamore & Oak. (DC Mayor's Office of Community Relations and Services/X)
A retail village in Southeast DC is celebrating a major milestone this month.

Sycamore & Oak, a 23,000-square-foot retail village in Congress Heights, commemorates its one-year anniversary this weekend. The site, which launched with much fanfare and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ribbon-cutting last June, features 13 local Black-owned businesses including restaurants, commercial spaces, a spa and wellness services provider and a boutique gym.

The site at 1100 Oak Drive SE has attracted nearly 80,000 visitors since its opening, according to Monica Ray, the president of Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation who’s at the forefront of the project’s operations.

The process of developing Sycamore & Oak started a few years ago, Ray said. The investor behind the project, the Laurene Powell Jobs-founded Emerson Collective, began to speak with community leaders in Congress Heights about what could be done with the parcel of land where the retail village now stands.

Ray recalled thinking the project might result in a couple of food trucks setting up shop on weekends. It’s turned into so much more than that, she said.

A Black woman stands in front of a wooden structure wearing a black and white top.

Monica Ray (Courtesy)

“I don’t think any of us understood at the time the impact that we’d be looking back on a year later,” said Ray, a 2023 RealLIST Connector who’s lived in Congress Heights for over 30 years.

Throughout those three decades, investors have come into the community with a professed goal to create opportunities for neighborhood residents. But how investors “show up” doesn’t match the narrative, Ray explained, adding that this project has been very different.

“Thirty years of seeing or hearing people say, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming,’ and not really seeing it, seeds doubt,” Ray said. “But the Emerson investment has unleashed what I’ve been calling the ‘power potential.’”

For example, Ray cited how in her time in the neighborhood, she hasn’t been able to buy clothes in Congress Heights. The norm is to leave the area to buy an outfit. So, to see stores like LoveMore at the complex means a lot to her.

Sycamore & Oak is part of a larger redevelopment project at St. Elizabeth’s East, a historic campus named for a psychiatric hospital. The area also houses the Entertainment and Sports Arena, where the WNBA’s Washington Mystics play.

The retail village’s operations particularly focus on the nearby Wards 7 and 8, which US Census data cited in DC’s Office of Planning’s Demographic Data Hub said are 84.8% and 83.5% Black, respectively.  More than 100 people, mostly from those wards, have been trained in different jobs at the site.

Also, the 13 businesses that opened in June last year are still housed at Sycamore & Oak, which Ray is particularly proud of. She’s seen the owners grow immensely since they were first interviewed two years ago when Ray was working to fill up the retail village

The advantage of these businesses being incubated in the space is that owners can pivot and experiment with their business models, Ray said. Four of the owners had different iterations of their businesses prior to Sycamore & Oak, but for most, it’s their first venture.

“I saw them be very nervous and timid, not really having their footing. And I’ve watched them grow in their maturity,” Ray said. “So I am confident that these business owners will be in a much different, more prepared place … in three to five years.”

See the full list of tenants

The building was designed by high-profile British architect David Adjaye, who also did the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. Shortly after Sycamore & Oak’s opening, three women accused Adjaye of sexual harassment and assault in a piece published by the Financial Times. In that aftermath, Adjaye was dropped from several high-profile projects, including the International Slavery Museum redevelopment in Liverpool. Adjaye continues to deny these allegations.

Ray said the allegations have not led to any negative impacts. Still, they serve as a reminder to “make sure that we’re creating safe environments for both our staff, the store owners and our visitors,” she said.

Moving forward, there are several plans to celebrate the anniversary this weekend, including an art exhibit and a sip-and-paint pop-up on Friday night; a DJ battle and concert on Saturday that features the Backyard Band, one of the most famous practitioners of DC-bred go-go music; and Father’s Day brunch on Sunday.

A building with brown slats sits in front of a blue sky and green tree.

Sycamore & Oak’s exterior (Dror Baldinger/FAIA/Sycamore & Oak)

There will also be an unveiling of a new playground at the site on Saturday. While the original plan was for a greenhouse, after listening to community input, leadership at Emerson decided to build a playground instead.

“What we know is there is a path for economic development in a very community-sensitive way, and there can be opportunities where both development and community and both sides win,” Ray said. “I’m hopeful that the Emerson investment and their being here will bleed over and become the norm as we look at more and more development coming to the community.”

Despite Ward 8 having some of DC’s largest green spaces, they’re underutilized, Ray said. The playgrounds that are in Congress Heights are not maintained well, she said, so this playground is filling a big gap.

Ray is excited to see her grandchild climb the nets at the playground for the first time. There are few playgrounds for kids to play in her neighborhood, she said, and she’s excited to bring a place for kids to have fun.

“Until this playground opens, there’s been very few places where he can go near our homes to play,” Ray said. “It’s a big deal.”

Disclosure: The editor of this article is related to an Emerson Collective staffer. That relationship had no impact on this report.

This article has been updated to clarify David Adjaye’s denial of sexual assault and harassment claims against him. 

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