What’s Wrong with Upper Georgetown?

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On Wisconsin Ave. north of Book Hill there is a pocket of commercial development that–despite being in Georgetown and in the shadow of a brand newish Safeway–has struggled to thrive. And as the years go on with persistent vacancies being joined by new vacancies, the questions really must be asked: what is wrong with this part of Georgetown?

Some might argue that this isn’t really Georgetown in the first place. This is wrong. Georgetown has a legislated northern boundary line along Wisconsin Ave: Whitehaven. So all the stores between R St. and the Safeway are within Georgetown’s boundaries.

What boundary it’s not within, however, is the BID’s. Does that matter? GM will consider that below.

Anyone familiar with this stretch should be familiar with its ills. Several storefronts have been vacant for years, including the old P.O. Boxes Etc., the old Spiral Flight Yoga building (which was a Homemade Pizza Co. for a short while), the old Adams Bank building, and the frame shop next door.

When the Safeway was reconstructed with a more pedestrian friendly design, it brought hope that this strip might improve into a bustling corner of Georgetown. Ther move to redevelop the lot south further increased the potential for the area.

But then Safeway filled all the new retail spaces with mostly blah tenants. And now those tenants are falling off. Noodles and Co. is closed and so is the Roosters salon (although that should’ve surprised nobody).

Some longtime stores and restaurants appear to be doing well. Bistro Lepic is cherished. After some ownership changes Shanghai Lounge appears to have found stability and success. Some of the tailors and beauty salons also have survived the test of time. And of course the Starbucks is always hopping. But the weaknesses persist.

So why is that?

Part of it is that it simply isn’t a great location. It’s on the edge of Georgetown and a long steep hill away from Glover Park. So probably not a lot of people find themselves simply walking by. And maybe it’s also that the properties facing challenges are just not very good properties. The bank property has a drive thru teller, if you’re not a bank do you really want to have that?

Would extending the BID’s boundaries help? Perhaps. Trash pick up might help. Maybe an organized fair like those that Book Hill throw could gin up interest. But fundamentally it just seems that there are not enough customers coming to this area to support more stores. It’s a chicken and the egg problem that faces lots of commercial districts. You need stores to attract customers, but you need customers to attract stores.

Maybe developing one or both of the surface parking lots into residential would bring the customers. Surely someone has considered that?

Any other suggestions?

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “What’s Wrong with Upper Georgetown?

  1. I’d love to see a bunch of kid-friendly places where Hardy’s middle-schoolers could hang out, rather than being banned from everywhere (like Safeway). Bookstores (shocking suggestion I know), record stores? I want my middle schooler to love his neighborhood like I loved Georgetown growing up, when I hung out at Orpheus and Commander Salamander and Roy Rogers and the movie theaters.

  2. A big negative is that there is no medium-high density residential in the area. If a developer could redevelop the block from the HSBC to S street on Wisconsin and the Sherwin Williams to Roosters (yes that building is new) and put in new residential/retail 4-6 stories. You’d have enough foot traffic to make the retail viable. It is too bad the Safeway didn’t include residential like others in the area.

  3. It used to be a very popular section of Georgetown, with a wonderful French restaurant with waiters on roller skates, Michael Piano’s hair salon, custom tailors, banks, a liquor store, a Japanese restaurant. Where are the landlords? What are they doing about this block? And shame on Georgetown’s BID for abandoning upper Georgetown.

  4. The hill is a large mental barrier, especially because this area is on the north side of it, making the sun angle unusual. Also the roads are chopped up by institutions and parks. My proposal:

    1. Pedestrian path connecting split segments of S Street. This could be negotiated with Georgetown U as part of the Filmore School deal. Then negotiate an easement on the surface parking lot for pedestrians, or ideally, future redevelopment of the shops next to Bistrot Lepic would include a straight connection through (bargained for with increased height/FAR). The area West of this strip has a lot of residents, but going the extra quarter mile around

    2. More Pedestrian connections to Jellef Field and Dumbarton Oaks Park. These trails lead directly to Rock Creek Park. The area could play up the connection between Glover Archbolid Park and Rock Creek Park. Jellef field is really nice but not well known.

    3. Connect the two sections of Whitehaven street that are being split by Dumbarton Oaks park. More connections, more potential visitors. The Naval Observatory is a big mental barrier to get around.

    Once a few of these urban planning issues are cleared up:

    4. I have not researched the zoning, but 4-6 story mixed-use as mentioned above should be standard on these commercial nodes of Wisconsin.

    I live nearby, so I’ve been thinking about this. I mapped some of this out here: https://goo.gl/photos/houJoQji2j71VNbp8

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