“This is your neighborhood theater,” Loews Cineplex Entertainment Executive Vice President Michael Norris declared, introducing the Loews Georgetown to the press a few days before its Nov. 29 opening. It takes a lot more than a village, however, to fill a 3,000-seat, 14-screen movie house regularly. To be successful, the industrial-look cinema will have to draw from well beyond Georgetown.
So far the place is booming. Via e-mail, a Loews spokesperson says the cinema, on K Street NW, was swamped on its first day: “Our plan was to open the theater at 5 p.m., but customers started lining up at 10 a.m. to buy tickets, so rather than turn people away, we decided to open early.”
Loews Cineplex won’t release box-office or attendance numbers for the theater, which is part of a hotel-condo-retail complex, still partially under construction, that’s centered on the smokestack from the long-idle Georgetown incinerator. But given the figures from the first few weeks, the spokesperson writes: “[W]e expect the theater to be in the top 10 Loews Cineplex locations soon.”
Those early returns suggest that the theater’s arrival is another milestone in the redefinition of Georgetown. It still doesn’t have a Metro stop, and it’s far from the geographic center of D.C. But the neighborhood has become Washington’s living downtown.
There have been many contenders for that distinction through the years, beginning well before the Metro Center area was transformed from the city’s principal shopping district into a white-collar, white-tablecloth office precinct. In the ’60s and ’70s, the “golden triangle” between Farragut Square and Dupont and Washington Circles was remade as an office/retail district. Friendship Heights, home to the only other operating movie theater built in D.C. since the ’80s, has more retail space than what’s left of the downtown shopping district. And for years, wags have referred to Pentagon City as D.C.’s real downtown.
Within the city’s borders, however, no area has seen more recent mixed-use redevelopment than Georgetown. This reflects the work of one man, Austrian-bred developer Anthony Lanier, and his efforts to remake Georgetown. Under Lanier’s influence, such upscale retailers as Pottery Barn, Smith & Hawken, and Sephora moved in on M Street. Lanier also created the “design center” of furniture and interior-decor stores that has largely supplanted the low-rent newsstands, sandwich shops, and liquor stores that until recently clustered near Key Bridge.
“In the short term,” Lanier says, “Georgetown is the city’s top retail district.”
It’s Lanier’s Eastbanc Inc., in partnership with New York-based Millennium Partners, that’s developing the project that includes the new Loews multiplex. In bringing films back to Georgetown after the Key and the Biograph succumbed to rising rents and Loews Cineplex shut its Foundry theater, Lanier has made the neighborhood a bit livelier and buttressed all the businesses that will profit from before- and after-movie shopping and dining.
“The exciting thing about Georgetown is that by nature it’s really kind of Washington’s only village,” says Lanier, who lives in the neighborhood himself. His aim, he says, is “to enhance that, make it nice for people to hang out. You can walk, do errands, shop, have something to eat, go to the movies.”
The multiplex, he adds, is “an asset for this village concept that I support. You go out, you are somewhere. It’s not driving to the movies and then driving home.”
Lanier’s successes provide a vivid contrast to the city’s halfhearted “living downtown” plan for the Metro Center/Gallery Place area. A decade ago, the D.C. Zoning Commission approved a hard-fought plan to make the old downtown a dynamic 24-hour district by requiring substantial retail and residential space in all new developments. But even before the zoning was enacted, the D.C. Council and the mayor’s office began working to undermine it. Eventually, most of the scheme was abandoned, leaving patchwork requirements that were certain not to create the desired effect.
Large building projects have indeed dramatically altered downtown, but many of them have made the area less active than it was before. Those that have boosted vitality are mostly not the responsibility of the city and its planners. The Pennsylvania Quarter area, whose apartments house the residents who are crucial to a lively area, was created by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., a now-defunct federal agency. The MCI Center, a mixed blessing but unquestionably a generator of pedestrian activity, was largely funded by developer and sports mogul Abe Pollin. And the new Gallery Place mixed-use project—which will bring the city a second 14-screen multiplex when it opens in late 2003—is the work of developer Herb Miller and the John C. Akridge Co.
Currently, the 7th Street corridor is a decidedly mixed bag: art galleries and sports bars, Chinatown restaurants under siege by Ruby Tuesday and Fuddruckers, and the Shakespeare Theatre and the Goethe-Institut about to meet Hooters. Still, it made sense to have designated the area between 4th and 15th Streets and Pennsylvania and New York Avenues the “living downtown.” This was the region’s shopping and entertainment center for some 150 years, and it’s near the Smithsonian museums, hundreds of office buildings, and several residential neighborhoods. Equally important, the Metrorail system is centered there.
Georgetown, by comparison, is off to one side, bordered by the Potomac and Rock Creek and accessible essentially by only two streets: M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. The area has plenty of bus service, including four Metrobus corridors and two minibus shuttle routes operated by the neighborhood’s business group. But it’s not on the Metrorail map, and it probably will never be.
Even so, Lanier believes in its assets. When he calls Georgetown a village, he means it has a strong identity and large numbers of both residents and visitors. The area’s historic character and international reputation are congenial to the sorts of tenants he tries to attract, many of them European. The neighborhood also has a topographical advantage: The rise from K to M Streets allows for large structures—such as the new Ritz-Carlton/Loews Theaters complex—to nestle into the hill without disrupting the 19th-century skyline.
The District’s height restrictions, Lanier says, were the reason Millennium and Eastbanc scrapped plans to put a multiplex in their Ritz-Carlton condo project in the West End. “Movies use up a lot of height,” he says. “So it’s very difficult to build a financially viable project with movies in it and then something on top of it. But in Georgetown, we had a steep slope, and we were building a project underneath a freeway. The movies lend themselves very well to lift those uses which would not like to be below the freeway, namely residences and the hotel. In essence, we had height as a result of our incline.”
In fact, there are few places in town that 14-theater, stadium-seating multiplexes will fit neatly into. So as the old neighborhood theaters close—perhaps to be reborn as nonprofit operations, like the Avalon—most of them won’t be replaced. Medium-density, low-rise neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase and Dupont Circle can’t accommodate theaters that range upward in size from 63,000 (United Artists Gallery Place) or 67,000 (Loews Georgetown) square feet.
The new multiplexes also rarely stand alone, except when being built on cheap suburban land. That’s because these swanky new cinemas don’t necessarily make much money and are often brought into mixed-use projects at a loss in order to draw customers for the other businesses or to fill otherwise unprofitable space. Mazza Gallerie didn’t replace three tiny theaters in its basement with seven big ones on the top floor because its developer really loves movies. The upper floors of urban malls are hard to rent to retail tenants, and filmgoers boost the mall’s other tenants.
In the past few years, nearly all the country’s major film-exhibition companies have gone bankrupt, the victims of minor downturns in attendance and major overexpansion. The Mazza Gallerie was opened by General Cinema but now belongs to AMC, which swallowed General Cinema after the latter filed for bankruptcy. While in the throes of its own insolvency, AMC withdrew from the Gallery Place project, to be replaced by United Artists. Loews Cineplex, which also went bankrupt, almost fled the Georgetown project. And there’s an empty eight-screen theater at 11th and E Streets NW, built for Landmark Cinemas before its parent company also filed for bankruptcy reorganization.
The contrast between the newly buzzing Loews Georgetown and the barren 11th and E theater (once slated to be called the Biograph) is instructive. When Loews made noises about defecting from the Georgetown project, Lanier and his partners reconfigured the project to keep the movie house. The Loews Cineplex bankruptcy “did create some heartburn for us,” Lanier concedes. Yet he persisted, because he believed that a large cinema was crucial to his vision for the neighborhood. “All the movie companies had difficulties,” Lanier says, “but going to the movies was not going to end.”
Downtown, the city cut a zoning/historic- preservation deal to get the cinema constructed in the relatively lively block between ESPN Sports Zone and the Hard Rock Cafe, but couldn’t actually get the place open. (It may yet come to life; Landmark reportedly signed a letter of intent in July to rent the space.)
The empty theater is emblematic of the city’s abortive schemes to get new retail and entertainment tenants in major downtown projects. The District has repeatedly failed to lure department stores or other large retailers to several downtown structures, including the long-vacant Woodward & Lothrop building. (Recently, Swedish clothing retailer H&M announced that it will take part of the Woodies space.) Lanier doesn’t get everything he wants, either; his quest to buy the Georgetown Park mall has so far been fruitless. But his success in bringing the city’s largest multiplex to his neighborhood suggests that what D.C. mixed-use redevelopment needs is not more planning, but more people who can cut a deal and make it stick.
Hence Lanier is looking outside his increasingly bustling village. Last week, Eastbanc and Millennium, in partnership with two other development firms, were among the applicants to redevelop the current convention center site, which the city imagines as a new “town square” for Washington. “If we’re selected, we’ll work with the city to optimize the project,” says Lanier. “I think we could do a great job.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.