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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.