1200 block of 31st St.
Most people with even just a passing knowledge of Georgetown history are aware that at some point in the neighborhood’s past there was once a significant African American population that is for the most part not around anymore. Those with a slightly deeper knowledge will attest to the fact that Georgetown was in the 1930s the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process that was later to be called gentrification. But what most people don’t realize is how much the current state of Georgetown was intentionally built upon that process.
Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it’s true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought. By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.
That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown.
A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change. The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy–one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation’s capital–the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.
Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out. Continue reading
After almost a decade of debate, the DC Zoning Commission last month approved a raft of changes to the zoning code. This wide ranging action took a code that had been originally written in the 1950s squarely up to date. For Georgetown there are two key changes that could have the most impact: corner stores and accessory dwellings. GM has looked into this issue many times before and here’s his write-up on the two changes:
Corner stores like Scheele’s and Sara’s are a critical part of the appeal of living in Georgetown. But the thing is, they only exist where they are due to grandfathering. The previous zoning code would consider them illegal if they hadn’t existed for as long as they have. And consequently, under the old regulations if any of them closed, unless a new store were opened there shortly after, the grandfathering would expire and no new store would be allowed.
This potentially had real consequences. When the future of Scheele’s was in doubt due to the Scheele family putting the building up for sale, it was never an option for the store to simply pick up and move across the street. The grandfathering wasn’t portable. So if a store lost its lease, it couldn’t simply move to another building unless that building was already zoned commercial. There are only a few small pockets in the side streets of Georgetown that are zoned commercial.
The new rules loosen the general prohibition on commercial activity in residential zones. You can now open a corner store in any property literally on a corner. Some conditions apply, but the main one is that there cannot be more than three other corner stores within 500 feet and it cannot be within 750 feet of M and Wisconsin.
That last condition is a little odd, but the idea is that corner stores are supposed to be neighborhood serving and not simply be an extension of the existing commercial areas.
Admittedly, these rules do not allow for many new stores popping up in the side streets of Georgetown. But the idea isn’t necessarily to add more corner stores (the demand probably couldn’t support it anyway) as it is to make it easier for new stores to open should the existing ones ever close.
Right now throughout Georgetown there are scores of “English Basement” apartments, and the like. They provide extra income for the homeowners and provide more affordable housing for the tenants.
But most of them are illegal. Continue reading