An Interview With Woodworker Alex Heitkemper

In his day job, Alex Heitkemper sells homes. But in his off hours, he can often be found working on his latest project at his home woodworking shop in University Park.

In recent weeks, Heitkemper has been putting the finishing touches on one of his most ambitious projects to date, a large table for the soon-to-open Banana Blossom Bistro Vietnamese restaurant in Riverdale Park.

It was a change of pace for Heitkemper, who typically focuses on smaller projects like cutting boards, jewelry boxes and end tables. But he’s also made bookcases, cabinets and end tables, so the craft wasn’t entirely new.

“I usually make smaller items because my shop space is so small and large pieces tend to just take so much room,” he said.

Heitkemper talked with the Hyattsville Wire recently about his woodworking.

When did you first try woodworking? What inspired you to start doing this particular work?

I first actually tried woodworking during shop class in middle school. While I didn’t get to directly learn from my grandfather before he died, he was probably who inspired me to do this type of work. He was master carpenter in the Boston area. He did several projects at Harvard, he was one of few carpenters in his company that could tackle spiral staircases, and he also did a few custom kitchens for some of the Celtics (John Havlicek being one). He had tons of pieces that he did around his house as well: Custom kitchen cabinets, some built-in, a coffee table, those kinds of things.

How did you learn to do it?

I would say I am 90 percent self-taught. My father-in-law has given me some pointers over the years, but I use trial and error to complete projects. Obviously, YouTube and Google are great resources.

What kinds of wood do you work with? Where do you get them? What kinds of things do you usually make?

The kind of wood used really depends on the project. In general, I use locally sourced hardwoods: maple, walnut, cherry and white oak. My main source for lumber is Maryland Select Harwoods in LaPlata run by Dennis Woodruff. It’s an old-school lumber yard. There probably aren’t many of those left. He is fair with his prices and has a great selection, all local from Maryland or Pennsylvania.

How did you come to make the table for Banana Blossom Bistro?

I met the owner of Banana Blossom Bistro at a silent auction for the Greenwood School. We also were the listing agents when they purchased their home. I had donated a couple smaller cutting boards and (owner) Annie (Ha Esguerra) noticed one of them. We began talking about how they were made and she asked if I would consider making a table top for her restaurant that would be open in a year or so. I usually don’t do these type of projects because woodworking is more of hobby and it takes a lot of time to get things right. However for some reason I thought it would great for them to have a nice piece in their new space. I always think is amazing when people take a risk to open a new business so I thought it would be great to do this project.

Where can people learn more about woodworking?

One of the best places to learn about woodworking is at the Woodworkers Club in Rockville. They have classes for beginners to advanced and the staff is extremely knowledgeable.

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The Purple Line Is a Year Behind Schedule

Artist’s rendering of planned Riverdale Park Purple Line station courtesy of MTA.

The Purple Line likely won’t begin carrying passengers until as early as February of 2023, about a year behind schedule.

The delays are fairly typical of major public transportation projects, but they will lead to more grousing from the project’s critics.

The Purple Line already began construction a year behind schedule, after a federal court dismissed a lawsuit aimed at stopping the project.

Other delays occurred when the contractor building the Purple Line found it more complicated than expected to coordinate with the CSX railroad, while the state missed some of its own deadlines for buying land and reviewing environmental plans.

These kinds of problems are pretty much expected by anyone who follows mass transit. After studying 258 transportation infrastructure projects around the world, University of Oxford scholar Bent Flyvbjerg nine in ten exceeded their cost estimates.

The delays will likely add about $215 million to the Purple Line’s $5.6 billion cost, the Washington Post reported.

Construction of the Purple Line already began in College Park last year where the University of Maryland permanently closed one lane of Campus Drive through the heart of campus, making it a one-way street.

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Inside College Park’s Peg Leg Vintage Store

When her husband was in the Navy, Krisi Hora moved every two or three years. Each time, she would buy and sell their furniture on the side.

Once Chad Hora left the military, the couple decided to do it full time.

For the past six years, they’ve run Peg Leg Vintage at 9600 Baltimore Ave. in College Park, selling “mid-century modern” furniture and home decor made from the 1940s to the 1970s. If it looks like it would be at home on “Mad Men,” they probably have it.

Hora, who has a background in interior design, says that furniture at the time was designed to be reupholstered, so it’s fairly straightforward for her to do it now. Plus, it’s more environmentally sound than today’s more disposable furniture.

“People bought one house, and they bought furniture for it that would last,” she said.

Most of the store’s inventory comes from estates sales and auctions, though they do some trades and have been known to buy particularly interesting pieces off of walk-ins. Over the years, that’s led to some interesting items, like a taxidermied caribou and vintage medical equipment.

A lot of customers stop by after shopping up the street at IKEA or Behnke’s Nursery, and Peg Leg has acquired a cult status among D.C.’s savvier designers, who keep tabs on new items on the store’s website and Facebook page.

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The Shutdown Hurts Sangfroid Distilling’s Rollout

Photo courtesy of Sangfroid Distilling

The partial government shutdown has hurt Hyattsville’s Sangfroid Distilling in the first weeks of its launch.

As one of the final steps before selling their products, brewers and distilleries must get approval for the design of their labels from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the Treasury Department.

As noted on the agency’s website, the bureau is shuttered, as it’s not considered essential.

“TTB will suspend all non-excepted TTB operations, and no personnel will be available to respond to any inquiries, including emails, telephone calls, facsimiles, or other communications,” the site notes.

“We’ve got an apple brandy label and an aged gin label that need approval,” co-owner co-owner Nate Groenendyk told the Hyattsville Wire. “They’re still aging in barrels for the meantime, but we can’t order labels until they’re approved (TTB requires a ‘Certificate of Label Approval’, or COLA, for all products).”

As noted by DCist recently, even when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reopens it will face a backlog of labels to review. For some craft brewers, much more of a delay could lead them to have to throw out their products, while holding up the rest of their production process as unsold liquids wait.

“While we’re not turning over products as quickly as a lot of breweries are, for small folks like us a month or two of delays can really affect us,” Groenendyk added.

Sangfroid will still be open this Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m., with tours and tastings about every half hour.

Sangfroid is the first distillery in Prince George’s County’s since prohibition, nearly 100 years ago.

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The Tire Place Closes, Ending an Era on Route 1

A family-run tire repair shop in downtown Hyattsville closed this week, bookending an era of history along the Route 1 corridor.

Open since 1999, The Tire Place was popular for fixing flat tires and quickly handling small repairs for local residents in a pinch.

It was a throwback to a time when Route 1 was the only major thoroughfare from Washington to Baltimore, as depicted in a 2018 book by Aaron Marcavitch. Later, after the interstate highway system put Route 1 out of favor, the area around Hyattsville became known for used car dealerships and small auto-related shops.

At the turn of the 21st century, local leaders sought to revitalize the area with what has turned out to be a highly successful push to add new homes, apartments and shops while declaring the area an arts district.

But that push was at times heavy-handed.

In 2000, Prince George’s County banned smaller used-car dealerships with the unanimously approved Vehicle Mobile Home and Camping Trailer Sales and Service Zoning Law. The bill’s authors argued that would make it easier for developers to buy up the smaller lots for new projects.

Some of the dealers closed. But others took the county to court, where a Circuit Court judge ruled the ordinance unconstitutional in 2004.

Still, local government has continued to push for redevelopment of the old auto shops. In 2013, leaders in Riverdale Park, frustrated by the vacancy of a former gas station along Route 1, threatened to acquire it through eminent domain and turn it into a park.

The city backed down, but owner Jey Edwards eventually renovated the property, adding a stucco exterior and a new interior.

Yanira Castro, owner of the Tire Place, alleges that something similar happened with her business, telling the Hyattsville Life and Times that one reason she closed the shop was constant haggling with the county over licenses, permits and building codes.

“They don’t want auto mechanics,” she said. “They want nothing to do with cars in this area of Hyattsville. The only available permits are for restaurants and other retail.”

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Greenbelt Theatre Announces Family Film Lineup

Old Greenbelt Theatre movie cinema arthouse indie Maryland

The Old Greenbelt Theatre’s new lineup of family movies is a mix of crowdpleasers, both old and new.

The nonprofit arthouse theater will hold regularly scheduled viewings of family-friendly movies under its newly renamed OGT Kids program. Movies are shown on Saturdays at 11 a.m.

The movie lineup is as follows:

Jan. 12: “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” The 1985 classic filmed by Tim Burton features Pee-Wee Herman on a road trip to reclaim his stolen bike.

Jan. 26: “The 20th Annual Animation Show of Shows.” A collection of animated shorts from around the world.

Feb. 2: “The Secret of NIMH.” The 1982 Don Bluth cartoon, based on the children’s book about super-intelligent rats.

Feb. 16: “Ernest & Celéstine.” A 2014 French cartoon about the unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear.

March 2: “Born Free.” The 1966 live-action movie about a British couple who taught a lion to live in the wild.

March 30: “Mirai.” Japanese animator Mamoru Hosoda’s final film centers on a girl who can time travel.

April 13: “Jumanji.” The 1995 version of the children’s book about a board game that comes to life, starring Robin Williams.

May 11: “Song of the Sea.” The creators of “The Secret of the Kells” follow-up centers on the Irish legend of the Selkies.

May 25: “The Last Unicorn.” The 1982 Rankin & Bass animated musical about a clumsy sorcerer helping save the unicorns.

Adult tickets are $9 and kids’ are $6 and kids are free if you become an annual member of the Old Greenbelt Theatre.

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Banana Blossom Bistro Set to Open in February

Courtesy of Banana Blossom Bistro.

Upscale fast-casual Vietnamese restaurant Banana Blossom Bistro is set to open soon in downtown Riverdale Park.

Marketing Events Manager of Banana Blossom Bistro, Sasha Racherbaumer, told the Hyattsville Wire that they don’t have a firm opening date yet, but that they are hoping to open as early as February.

The 46-seat restaurant (with outdoor seating planned as well) would be a new anchor for Riverdale Park’s historic downtown, just blocks off Route 1.

Located right off the Trolley Trail, the restaurant would be near the Bikram Yoga studio, the Town Center Market and the upcoming Riviera Tapas and just around the corner from the thriving Riverdale Park Station.

The area has a lot of potential — with one landowner looking to sell a chunk of land nearby — but it might take some hip new restaurants to get people to turn off Route 1.

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Mount Rainier’s Pennyroyal Station Opening Soon

Pennyroyal Station is almost ready to open.

The new bar and restaurant, planned for the Singer Building in Mount Rainier, will be run by chef Jesse Miller and Erin Edwards from the popular Bar Pilar and Café Saint-Ex restaurants in D.C. and Garrick Lumsden, formerly of Passion Food LLC.

Edwards spoke with the Hyattsville Wire today and said Pennyroyal Station is slated to open by March, which is several months passed their initial planned opening. She said one of the reasons for the delay is that they are working to preserve the character of the Singer Building, which dates back to 1936.

Pennyroyal Station  has long been among the most-anticipated restaurants in the D.C. area, but it is especially welcome in Mount Rainier, which has lacked a similar restaurant since Bird Kitchen and Cocktails closed nearby.

“The no-fuss spot will be open all day, with stuffed biscuits and coffee in the mornings and, at night, a veggie ‘charcuterie’ board and truffled potato croquettes in onion soup,” noted the Washingtonian.

The name comes from a flowering herb native to Washington State, “a nod to the Seattle surveyors who founded the City of Mount Rainier,” according to the owners, while station refers to city’s past as a streetcar stop.

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Is College Park’s Quantum Computer the Best?

Photo of IonQ employee Kai Hudek courtesy of Erin Scott

While tech giants like Google and IBM compete to build the next generation of supercomputers, a startup in College Park has gone a different route to build one that’s receiving praise.

Started by a physics professor at the University of Maryland, IonQ — which was recognized in the Hyattsville Wire’s 2018 readers’ poll — has built what Gizmodo recently called “one of the best-performing quantum computers yet” and the Wall Street Journal noted it’s attracting serious attention from investors.

The science can be a little hard to follow, but in a simplified form, the tech firms are all trying to build something that can go beyond the zeroes and ones that the computer you’re reading uses to encode information. Instead, by relying on the quirky world of subatomic physics, the computers would encode information in qubits — quantum bits that can be a little bit zero and a little bit one.

If quantum computing can be perfected, the difference in computing power would be astronomical, allowing complex calculations — such as modeling how an enzyme creates ammonia or optimizing traffic in big cities — that aren’t doable using traditional computers. It would be, pardon the phrase, a quantum jump for computers.

IonQ is attracting notice because it chose to build its computer using a different architecture than the ones being built by IBM and Google, relying on trapped ions (hence the name) instead of superconductors that must be kept at supercooled temperatures. If its bet is correct, that would put it ahead of its rivals.

Even if it doesn’t pay off, the fact that the company is being touted as a contender in the tech world’s current Great Race means College Park is moving closer to its goal of becoming the “next Silicon Valley.”

IonQ’s initial success complements the city’s other moves in that direction such as the recent opening of the first WeWork on a college campus; the university’s new robotics, engineering and computer science building; a nearby Fortune 500 innovation lab; new apartments aimed at recent grads; a $180 million hotel with convention space; and an upcoming light rail line that connects to a university-run research park.

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The Hyattsville Wire’s Most-Read in 2018

College Park Grill restaurant Cambria Hotel
Photo courtesy of College Park Grill.

Stories about local development, shopping and dining continued to be the most-read items on the Hyattsville Wire in 2018.

A look back at the top stories this year showed that changes in Hyattsville, College Park and Greenbelt were big draws. Here are the top five stories starting with the most-read story of the year:

Greenbelt’s Beltway Plaza to Be Redeveloped. The mall’s owners, Bethesda-based Quantum Companies, are looking to add townhomes, apartments and more shops to modernize it.

Applebee’s in College Park Now Closed. College Park’s Applebee’s has shut its doors, a victim of changing millennial tastes in restaurants and looming redevelopment along Route 1.

Here’s What’s Coming to Route 1’s Dining Scene. The dining scene on the Route 1 corridor keeps getting more interesting, with Taqueria Habanero, Marco & Polo and Riviera Tapas joining the mix.

College Park Moves Closer to Opening Lidl. The German chain will open one of 100 stores planned along the East Coast as part of an ambitious $1.6 billion expansion into the U.S. market.

Behind College Park’s New $140 Million Project. Aimed at professionals instead of students, the project would include 400 apartments and 73,000 square feet of retail.

Other stories that drew interest included the opening of the upscale College Park Grill, the relaunch of the Old Maryland Grill under new management, inside MOM’s Organic Market’s pinball arcade and why Hyattsville is considering renaming Magruder Park.

Thank you to all of our readers for sending tips, story ideas and comments, and, as always, for joining us this year. And a special thanks to all of our advertisers for their continued support.

Have a happy new year and we’ll see you in 2019!

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