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A Haven of History, Georgetown Fights to Compete with City’s Newer Neighborhoods

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d1.georgetown.canal.storyGeorgetown was the first glimpse of D.C. that I got when my then-fiancé brought me to the area to apartment hunt in Ballston, Va. We went to dinner at one of many non-chain restaurants. It was summertime and a lobster special was on the menu. I ordered it, and as I cracked its shell, I watched passersby and noticed something interesting: They were clothed.

I grew up in South Florida and attended the University of Florida. I was accustomed to seeing many midriffs, barely-there shorts and boxers deliberately puffed out of oversize, low-slung jeans. But in Georgetown, there were crustaceans and class. I was sold.

During the seven years I lived over the bridge from Georgetown, the neighborhood became a destination for me. My husband and I went to movies at the AMC Georgetown 14 on K Street, even though we passed two theaters on our drive there. We ended up sitting slack-jawed next to comedian Dave Chappelle when he plopped down next to us at Hershey’s Ice Cream adjacent to the theater. We strolled along the cobblestone streets lined with multimillion-dollar Federal-style rowhouses and stylish, quirky storefronts, window shopping at high-end stores such as Intermix and drooling over delicacies at Dean & DeLuca.

Eventually, we moved to the suburbs and the nights out in Georgetown all but stopped. The neighborhood continues to have a certain allure in a nostalgic kind of way. But now the District has hipper, more popular attractions such as CityCenterDC and the H Street Corridor, as well as entire new neighborhoods such as The Wharf and Navy Yard, which some Georgetown devotees say leaves their neighborhood stuck in the very past that gives it its charisma.

“It has old charm. You don’t get that in other areas of the city. I think that’s what really makes Georgetown special,” said Jennifer Romm, director of the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

But it also makes it tough for Georgetown to modernize and keep up with the times. A federally protected historic district, Georgetown’s appearance is fiercely protected by the Commission of Fine Arts and the Old Georgetown Board, which dictate what renovations are allowed. Incoming businesses must adhere to strict rules and secure specialized permits, which can hold up their progress. That’s one reason for the abundance of “for lease” and “for sale” signs in empty storefronts right now, said Joe Sternlieb, chief executive officer and president of the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID), which was established in 1999 to enhance the commercial part of the neighborhood.

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Identity Crisis

Over the years, Georgetown’s treasure trove of mom-and-pop shops and eateries gave way to chain stores and restaurants that began taking over both sides of M Street. High-end shops such as Kate Spade and Intermix offered inviting storefronts for people to admire as they munched on treats from Georgetown Cupcake.

Landlords began raising rents to attract the national and global brands that could afford them, while the independent stores owned by locals closed shop. To Beth Solomon, founder of the Georgetown Dish news and entertainment website, that shift from unique to a “lowest common denominator approach” signaled a downturn for the neighborhood.

A Bethesda, Md., native, she spent much of her late childhood traipsing through Georgetown. “It shaped what my sense of Washington was, and in the ’80s, Georgetown was a really different place,” Solomon said. “It had texture, it was interesting, it was kind of bohemian and cultural. I don’t think those would be the first adjectives that people would use now.”

She criticizes what she said were decisions to orient Georgetown toward tourists and suburbanites — something she says is starting to happen on 14th Street, NW, now, too.

“Any neighborhood can suffer from its own popularity,” Solomon said. “I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle.”

Another iconic aspect of Georgetown’s personality has also disappeared alongside the trend toward more brand-name, upscale retail: its nightlife, particularly its boisterous college bar scene. That was a welcome development for many well-heeled residents who grew tired of drunk, rowdy university students taking over Georgetown streets every weekend — and who spearheaded the drive to curb the growth of bars by sharply limiting the number of liquor licenses that can be issued.

But the demise of Georgetown’s nightlife scene was, predictably, a disappointment to those college kids, as well as to others for whom the neighborhood’s casual pubs and dive bars gave Georgetown a laidback, fun vibe despite its ubiquitous wealth. Among the longtime iconic bars to fall victim to this decline were Third Edition, legendary for its lax entry policies for younger students; Garrett’s; The Guards; Rhino Bar; the piano bar Mr. Smith’s, which moved to the location once occupied by Chadwick’s; and, most recently, Old Glory BBQ.

d1.georgetown.pnc.storyEmpty Space

Rising rents and the closure of mainstay, locally owned businesses have taken their toll in recent years. Georgetown’s retail vacancy rate was 7.1% in 2018, compared with 6% for the D.C. region, according to BID’s 2018 Georgetown Retail Market Report. “At the end of 2018, there were 48 empty storefronts totaling 214,000 square feet, or about 10.1% of total retail space. Of those spaces, 15 had signed leases, totaling 61,500 square feet, or about 3% of total retail space,” the report states.

The average asking rent in Georgetown was about $49,000 for the second quarter of 2019, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s MarketBeat Washington D.C. report — up from $47,000 at the end of 2018 and about $46,000 in 2017. The real estate services firm also puts the neighborhood’s overall vacancy rate for office space at 17.2%, the highest of the seven areas that the firm tracks. That’s up from 12.9% in the first quarter and 10% at the end of 2018.

But one-offs are making a comeback, Sternlieb said, as more people shop online, rather than inside big chain stores and malls. “The people who always like shopping small, local, well-curated stores where the owner is there and gets to know you, those people still like shopping in those places,” he said. “So, we are seeing a lot of interest lately from locals interested in coming back into the market.”

For instance, clothing chain Zara closed its location on Wisconsin Avenue in April 2018, and that space has been purchased and will be replaced by seven smaller retailers — all locals. “I think they will be quite successful,” Sternlieb said.

Nine retail buildings sold in Georgetown in 2018, totaling $50.8 million in sales volume.

d1.georgetown.storefronts.storyAnd while some longtime restaurants recently shut their doors, including J. Paul’s and Paolo’s, others are stepping in to fill the void, including the first Georgetown location for celebrity chef José Andrés’s America Eats Tavern.

Reopening the Taps

On that note, another major help in stemming the exodus of restaurants to other up-and-coming neighborhoods was lifting the liquor licensing moratorium that capped the number of licenses available to restaurants and multipurpose facilities within 1,800 feet of the central intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, NW — a major turnoff to restaurants otherwise interested in hanging a shingle in Georgetown.

Enacted in 1989 at the behest of residents who balked at the behavior of inebriated college students and tourists, BID worked with the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and Citizens Association of Georgetown to put an end to it in 2016.

“Restaurants that weren’t even interested in Georgetown are now touring here, and some of them have signed leases,” Sternlieb said. “More than anything, it’s changed the perception that Georgetown was closed to those businesses and too difficult to do business in, so we now have the same rules as everybody else in town.”

Future Vision

BID is six years in to Georgetown 2028, a 15-year strategic plan to keep Georgetown viable against all of D.C.’s new competing neighborhoods. Among its most notable accomplishments is a revamp of the section of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal that runs through Georgetown and the 184.5-mile towpath alongside it. Once a crucial conduit of trade, the canal operated until a flood damaged it in 1924. The National Park Service (NPS) has kept the section in Georgetown watered since the C&O Canal National Historic Park was established in 1971, even continuing to offer rides on canal boats pulled by mules as they had back in the day. But it fell into disrepair and went out of use in 2011.

As a result of Georgetown 2028, the boat is coming back in September 2020, and NPS will run the mules again. That one line in the plan led to the creation of an organization — Georgetown Heritage — with four staff members, a $1 million budget and $20 million in investments from the city and federal governments, Sternlieb said.

Another major project, which is still under discussion, is the construction of gondolas connecting Georgetown to the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Va. The Georgetown-Rosslyn Aerial Gondola Lift would involve 23 cabins hanging from a cable and traveling at 12 miles per hour, according to the Georgetown-Rosslyn Gondola Coalition. The goal is to make Georgetown — the largest employment center in D.C. without a Metro station, according to the group — more accessible.

d1.georgetown.park.rides.storyFeelings for and against that proposal run strong. “I think it sounds totally fun,” Romm said. “People think that it would really affect the commute, that it would get cars off the street and get people using public transportation. It would be a huge boon for [Georgetown] University and for businesses and for residents, too. It’s sort of our subway stop.”

But not everyone is enamored with the concept.

“Many people just roll their eyes at the idea of a gondola into Rosslyn from Georgetown,” said Billy Martin, owner of Martin’s Tavern. “I’m on the fence. I’m not a big proponent for the gondola, but they may put it in and prove me totally wrong.”

Meanwhile, a Metro station isn’t a lost cause, Sternlieb said, but it probably won’t be in place by 2038, let alone 2028. “Some day, they’re going to have to separate the Blue Line from the Orange and Silver to deal with the bottleneck at the Rosslyn tunnel, and they’re going to have to do another tunnel and when they do, that tunnel will come through Georgetown and we’ll get a station,” he said.

Despite the potential changes that could once again transform the neighborhood, not all of Georgetown’s iconic offerings have fallen victim to shifting tastes, trends and modes of transportation. Martin’s Tavern, a fixture on Wisconsin Avenue and N Street, NW, since 1933, has weathered the pendulum swings over the years by staying true to its roots while remaining open to new ideas, according to its owner.

“We stay in tune with the times. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — and we don’t,” Martin told us. “But we also keep an eye on what is the market in the restaurant industry, in the hospitality industry. What direction is it going? What do people want? What are they looking for? So we have to incorporate those kinds of things into our business.”

Storied History

Georgetown has long been known as a hub for commercial activity. It was established in 1751, 40 years before Washington, D.C., was formally established. Reportedly named in honor of Britain’s King George II, it began as a shipping center, due in large part to its location on the Potomac River. Over time, tobacco became “the lifeblood of the community,” according to NPS, and during the American Revolution, it was a depot for military supplies. Incorporated in 1789, Georgetown became more industrial as flourmills, a textile mill and a paper factory set up shop there.

d1.georgetown.sailing.1865.vintage.storyAfter the river flooded and damaged the canal, the neighborhood fell into disrepair. It would remain “one of Washington’s worst slums” until the 1930s and hit its stride two decades later thanks to a dashing young politician named John F. Kennedy.

Before he and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy lived in the White House, they lived in Georgetown. He proposed to her in a booth at Martin’s Tavern. (Other famous patrons include presidents Richard Nixon, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush.)

The neighborhood is also home to Blues Alley, the oldest continuously operated jazz supper club in America — a place where Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis have held court.

What’s more, Georgetown was home to a vibrant African American community. Many came as slaves to tobacco land owners, but by 1900, Washington had the largest percentage of African Americans of any U.S. city, largely because of opportunities to work for the government. In Georgetown, civil rights movements ran strong. For instance, black residents created the Rock Creek Citizens Association in 1916 and boycotted Georgetown’s bicentennial celebration because they said blacks didn’t contribute to celebration plans, and it destroyed “For Coloreds Only” signs on Rose Park in 1945 and rounded up a petition to create an integrated playground.

Many of Georgetown’s homes and buildings date to the 18th and 19th centuries. According to NPS, about 58 houses are listed in the D.C. Inventory as landmarks of Federal City/Pre-Civil War importance. The Old Stone House, built in 1765, is the oldest structure on its original foundation in the District. In 1967, Georgetown became a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, the neighborhood powers that be are well aware of the commercial competition they face from places such as The Wharf, where glass-covered mixed-use buildings tower over the historic Municipal Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the country. Or from CityCenterDC, which has become something of a Rodeo Drive, with designers such as Bulgari, Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo staking out spots in sparkly new buildings.

“Something my father told me many, many, many years ago is Georgetown is kind of like a pendulum. It swings up and it swings down,” said Martin, who is on the BID board. “The pendulum is, I think, kind of at the bottom right now and it’s going to start swinging back up.”


About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on October 2, 2019