Housing Complex

Georgetown Wants More Help From the City: Really?

Into the "dead zone," as they call it.

Every couple of months, I go to some event where Georgetowners agonize about how nobody likes their neighborhood anymore—commercial corridors around the city are attracting the exciting new retail and restaurants, throwing them into an identity crisis. That was supposed to be resolved by a new branding campaign, but the fretting continues.

Last month, it was a forum hosted by the Georgetown Business Association, where the moderator asked a panel of businessfolk and politicians whether Georgetown was still on the city's economic development radar; she wanted to know if the city would be willing to support a startup incubator or other incentives to lure businesses to Georgetown. Last night, it was a smaller panel on the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, which people seem to think is underperforming.

The Citizens Association of Georgetown decided to host the event in the now-vacant National Jewelry Center, which is seen as a "symbol of the decline of Wisconsin Ave." It was a dramatic setting, unlike almost any in Georgetown at the moment: All the furnishings ripped out but for the mirrors behind the booths, with low light and a few lonely signs still hanging on the walls. It was easy for the packed crowd to start thinking about how the former Georgetown Theater could be reborn. 

The core of Georgetown residents' dissatisfaction: The kind of tacky retail represented by the former Jewelry Center and the mens clothing stores that still cluster on that block of the avenue, between the chains on lower Wisconsin and the cute boutiques towards Book Hill. Sure, they're worried about less-than-immaculate buildings and lingering vacancies, but some businesses that appear to be doing O.K. just don't fit what they think the high-class image of Georgetown should be.

"What's with all the suit shops?" asked Councilmember Jack Evans. "Who buys a $15 suit? I get asked that every day. That's the dead zone."

It's hard not to notice the class and race implications of all this. Wealthy white Georgetowners don't shop at those stores—where suits go for $99, not $15—and they think they don't contribute to the neighborhood. They're the remnant of an earlier time,* when not all the retail was Calvin Klein and H&M. But instead of viewing them as small independent businesses that Georgetowners say they love, the kind of diversity that keeps the place from becoming entirely an outdoor suburban mall, they're seen as seedy and therefore undesirable.

Apparently, though, the folks who own the properties don't see the problem with that retail mix. According to broker John Asadoorian, the success of M Street is due to landlords like Richard Levy and Anthony Lanier who figured out a vision for the strip and implemented it. Wisconsin has more absentee landlords who don't want to put in that kind of effort.

So Georgetowners think the public should help them out with Wisconsin Avenue. In fact, as Patch explains, developer and Georgetown resident Herb Miller thinks the city should take the $11 million left over from the $30 million downtown tax increment financing pool and spend it to catalyze development in Georgetown.

That's ridiculous. The city has already put millions of dollars into Georgetown, as Evans was quick to remind the audience, redoing the streetscape infrastructure to create an environment where businesses felt comfortable investing—and it worked, helping Georgetown come back as the mostly-luxury retail playground it is today. Tax increment financing, on the other hand, is supposed to be used in neighborhoods that haven't quite made it yet, and need something big to push them over the edge. It had a huge effect downtown. Now, that leftover TIF money should go to neighborhoods that seriously need the investment: Georgia Avenue, Anacostia, and Deanwood, which have little to nothing in the way of neighborhood-serving retail. Not Georgetown, where property values are already sky-high and unlikely to go higher.

Which isn't to say there's nothing to be done in Georgetown. You've got to feel for the foot traffic-starved P Street retailer who got up and talked about how tourists start on M Street, walk uphill for a couple blocks, and then turn around, seeing nothing further north to get to. That could be helped tremendously by wayfinding signage to tell people what kind of shops they can find where, or widening sidewalks to create a better pedestrian experience, like what's planned for Glover Park.

As far as bringing in the kind of retail Georgetowners say they want, filling in those vacant storefronts: It's not about the suit shops. It's about making Georgetown attractive to quality entrepreneurs. "Georgetown is seen as a hard place to do business," Asadoorian said. That's not just rent. It's the lack of robust public transportation, high real estate taxes, the risk of community opposition, extensive layers of architectural review. Eataly, which has been mentioned as a potential tenant for the old theater, told Asadoorian as much. Miller himself said that restauranteur Jose Andres wouldn't come to Georgetown because he'd have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a liquor license.

Should the city use tax dollars to make up for the fact that Georgetown has made itself too expensive? I don't think so.

Someone will buy the old Georgetown Theater and turn it into something that will work—perhaps a collection of small retailers like Cady's Alley. Maybe that will help transform the shops on either side of it. But only if Georgetown residents proactively try to bring retailers in—Asadoorian recalled the tremendous campaign Logan Circle mounted to bring Whole Foods to their end of P Street, for example—rather than make it more difficult.

* Corrected from an earlier version, which identified the suit shops with the African American community that lived in Georgetown in the 50s and 60s. The suit shops came later.

  • molly

    totally with you on this. it's difficult to feel bad for Georgetown when places like Georgia Ave are getting money pulled from them (http://www.tbd.com/blogs/tbd-on-foot/2011/09/georgia-avenue-great-streets-project-loses-1-44-million-residents-protest--12614.html).

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/karcher/ Ken Archer

    "Georgetowners" didn't ask for TIF money, Lydia. Herb Miller did. You didn't mention that no one else on the panel endorsed this idea.

    I talked with some Georgetown residents afterwards, and they all agreed that if there is $11 million in TIF money available and nothing else because the city reached its debt cap, it should obviously be spent on less developed parts of the city.

    Your idea of widening sidewalks was mentioned by the panelists (Herb Miller is the main advocate of that idea).

    I understand that this was a tempting narrative to slip into, but in this instance it's a bit of a reach.

  • Opinionated Guy

    If you want to state that wealthy neighborhoods/residents shouldn't have help from the city when it comes to developing commercial areas, so be it. But I cannot think of a reason to introduce race into the discussion. I mean, really. If a neighborhood consisted of mostly wealthy Black residents, would your opinion change? Why should a neighorhood's racial composition (as opposed to class) make a difference in your mind? Or, more to the point, stop being a jerk.

  • Sarah

    I always thought that the "$15 suit" shops clustered along Wisconsin Avenue were fronts for substances/money laundering businesses.

  • xmal

    @Opinionated Guy

    How else would you explain Jack Evans's completely out-of-line statement? Have you ever seen anyone complain about getting a good deal? No, just like with battles over affordable housing, this is a concern about "the wrong element" benefiting from the good deals.

    Way to call a spade a spade, Lydia, and hope that Georgetown will continue to sell a wide variety of products and serve diverse customers for a while longer.

  • Topher Mathews

    Lots of great points and fair criticism. As organizer of this event, I tried to bring together some contrary views on how commercial development can and should proceed in Georgetown. As you point out, Herb Miller has strong views on what should be done, and that includes using TIF money towards a streetscape project and the development of a "master plan". You list strong arguments against such a use for that money. Most of all, tax incremental financing works (and more importantly, is justified) when there's actually an increment. There probably would be an increase in sales and (less so) property tax revenues if Wisconsin Ave were filled with higher volume/price shops. But as you point out, there are much lower hanging fruit across the city. This really is all moot, though, because a TIF is just not going to happen. (Another side benefit to a TIF is that the city can put conditions on the money and thus use it as leverage to make sure the resulting tenants are what the community wants. John discussed how that worked well for downtown DC last night).

    That said, spending money on these improvements may be completely warranted. But perhaps a better model than a TIF would be a special tax district for Wisconsin Ave. or, better yet (although it would produce less money) would be the implementation of performance parking with the added meter fees used to pay for the improvements. These are just some of the ideas, and I think a forum like last night's is less about making a case for a particular strategy as it is to simply engage the stakeholders (in this case, the residents) in a discussion.

    Whenever Georgetowners get together to talk about conditions in the neighborhood, they are figuratively and literally talking about #georgetownproblems. So we always need to keep in mind that we're talking about molehills when other neighborhoods are facing mountains. That said, it is the neighborhood we live in and we are perfectly within our rights and responsibilities to participate in a civic process to improve the neighborhood in the manner we think we should (obviously within the boundaries of the law).

    The only quibble I have with this otherwise fair critique is the point about the suit stores being a remnant of an earlier time. They are certainly that, but the time they're remnanting is the 1970s, not the 1950s and sixties, when there was still a sizable African American population in Georgetown. These stores and buildings are owned by immigrant families that came here in the 1970s mostly. They weren't around when the Georgetown Black community was still thriving and they aren't really related to that population (it's similar to the dynamic between the Shaw historic African American population and the Ethiopian population there). That said, there is of course a racial/class element to this as with just about every commercial development issue across the city. Do people dislike these stores because they're tacky, run down, and don't sell anything they want, or because the people that do patronize them are from a different race or SES? I can't say. It's something worth talking about, but I just decided it wouldn't be terribly productive to have that conversation last night.

  • CoHo1

    How long will it take for Georgetowners to realize it will never be an exclusive retail destination. FCUK, Pottery Barn, Tommy Hilfiger have all closed. Georgetown will never attract a Prada or any other high end retailer. Not enough space, so --- be happy with the Zoot suit stores, they're the only thing from having Wisconson Ave look completely abandoned.

  • http://www.lowbradc.com Low Brau DC

    So no discussion as to the root of why business don't want to go there? High rent, no metro, complicated Old Georgetown Board approvals, and more? Look at the Georgetown mall, which had a chance to have a major anchor retailer, steadily being shooed away, because it doesn't meet the historic requirements.

    I was working with someone who wanted to open an arm of their business in Georgetown, some landlords were asking for much more than their space was worth, the other spaces were in bad disrepair and would be cost a lot just to meet code.

    Add all this together, and it's not a surprise that people will take their business to a neighborhood with a metro and cheaper rent with less restrictions. No brainer if you ask me.

  • Barrie Daneker

    Listen to Jack he knows...Georgetown wants help with retail...they need to take metro or streetcars and then we can talk about giving their retail some funds. Herb instead of looking for a dollar either smoke some herb or use your own cash and invest. There are parts of this city that have no retail and you want money for Georgetown. Herb I think it's Miller Time for you

  • Die is Cast

    @Low Brau DC... Pottery Barn, T. Hilfiger and FCUK were all replaced by better, more exclusive stores... specifically Apple, Athletica and a flagship Brooks Brothers. The newer, better stores are thriving. For instance, Apple is doing over $50 million in annually and most of the clothing stores are averaging $600/ft in sales. G'town rents continue to rise (particularly along M Street) and the neighborhood continues to attract more upscale stores like Rag and Bone, CB2, etc. Frankly I don't get all the hate for G'town -- it has long been and continues to be a vital part of DC. It is a neighborhood that adds far more to DC's coffers than it takes. All that said, Lydia is spot on w/ her criticism of the meeting -- the problem is that there isn't a problem -- things are already working themselves out. Most of the vacant stores have been (or will soon be) leased (Commander Salamander was leased just last Wed). Live and let live...

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  • Jane

    Ugh. "We support local businesses so long as they interest wealthy white people!" Okay, maybe that's too far, but it kinda reads that way. The best parts of Georgetown are the oldest ones, like the awesome used bookstores and the severely underrated La Chaumiere.

    I like Georgetown but have to disagree with the above poster. Apple and Brooks Brothers are not exclusive in the slightest. It really isn't a high end retail establishment, it's essentially a suburban mall set along a strip with terrible transportation. I once took a bus to Palisades on a Friday night; it took us 35 minutes to get from one end of Georgetown to the other. A mess. And it's not pleasant to walk when it's freezing out.

  • ceefer66


    Ridiculously high rents, no metro station(thanks to NIMBYism), a cumbersome Board approval process (look at what the Apple Store went through.

    Not to mention scarce parking and poorly-managed traffic - expect people to drive in when there's no Metro - duh!

    And most of the eating/drinking places are either overpriced restaurants with mediocre food or "Cheers" wannabee bars full of youngsters.

    I would rather go to Tyson's. At least there's plenty of free parking, lots of nice adult restaurants, plus Metro's coming soon.

  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    " Apple and Brooks Brothers are not exclusive in the slightest. It really isn't a high end retail establishment"

    Just because something is a successful national chain doesn't mean that it's not "high end." While those chain retailers are relatively common in our region, they are considered luxury brands by most of the United States. While Apple products have become far more ubiquitous in recent years, it wasn't because they lowered their prices.

    As for Brooks Brothers, we have many in our region, but good luck finding one outside of the Favored Quarter.

  • RD

    "Commander Salamander was leased just last Wed). "

    What was it leased to?!

  • DF

    I just want to chime in that I too always assumed the row of clothes stores around CVS are fronts.. I walk by there all the time and never see anyone in them. Also wanted to ask about the Target talk - anyone know if there is a chance it might come to GT Park? I get tired trucking out to Potomac Yards to get random things. We live in Georgetown, have 4 kids, sometimes a Target run makes sense. Would love to be able to amble down to our local mall to get the odd item (white turtle necks the night before the christmas show for example). Would like to keep spending local, but tired of paying $6 or 7 dollars for 2 rolls of paper towels at Safeway..