Thomas Bass, mayor of Hyattsville for a record 16 years from 1979 to 1995, has died at age 75, according to a family obituary released this week.
Before serving as mayor, Bass also served as a City Councilor from 1972 through 1979, and held many titles in local political and civic groups. He was a longtime member and president of a mens-only club of Prince George’s County Democratic Party bigwigs that only opened its doors to women in 2001. In 1982, Bass unsucessfully ran for County Council.
Born in Cradock, Virginia in 1943 to parents Louis and Mary Bass, the younger Bass went on to be a 1962 graduate of Northwestern High School. Bass is survived by his wife of 55 years, Lillian, as well as his brothers Robert and Michael and his children Jeffery and Christine. He also is survived by four grandchildren.
His exploits in local politics were well-documents by an historically-more-robust local news media. Many of the same issues with which Bass grappled – affordable housing, youth crime, Route 1 development – may seem familiar to Hyattsville residents today.
Bass took the center seat of the dais at a time when Hyattsville was in an existential crisis. Mid-century plans for a new auto-oriented “Metro Center” next to what was then Prince George’s Plaza both hollowed out Hyattsville’s historic downtown and also never achieved the promise of becoming a “second downtown” in the suburbs.
As early as 1980, Bass appears to have realized that the shift from streetcar suburb to, well, car suburb, had wrought havoc on Hyattsville’s historic downtown, and presided over an effort to build political will, at the granular level, for more-urbanist-oriented public policies to redevelop Baltimore Avenue. That work laid the foundation for the Gateway Arts District zoning that has allowed the redevelopment of the Route 1 corridor as we know it today.
In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Bass also wrestled with plans to expand what is today the site of the former WSSC headquarters. Officials with the utility had proposed multiple plan to expand on the property. There were concerns about its effect on Magruder park. Sound familiar?
In 1984, Bass opposed the location of a halfway home for teenagers in Hyattsville at 4109 Queensbury Road, saying it would be better placed in an area with fewer single-family homes. The project moved ahead over Hyattsville city objections, and the site still serves as a residence for foster teens.
In a 1985 interview, he described Hyattsville’s “nicest” quality as its “quiet, residential-type atmosphere” and abundant parkland. In that same interview, he said the worst quality of the town was Baltimore Avenue’s auto-oriented Hyattsville corridor. His concerns formed the foundation of decades of policy efforts to revamp the city’s Route 1 corridor, which today has replaced abandoned car dealerships with thriving mixed-use development.
“Having a major highway running right through the middle of your business district messes up your pedestrian traffic,” Bass told The Washington Post. “We like to think we’re making great strides with our blighted downtown.”