Could a gondola lift or double-wide sidewalks rescue Georgetown?


Pedestrians cross M Street in Georgetown. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Georgetown has long been one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, home to upscale boutiques and multimillion-dollar historical residences. Yet the feeling among business owners is that the neighborhood’s period charm is not the draw it once was, as new hip urban districts take shape elsewhere in the region.

Years ago, said Paul J. Cohn, owner of J. Paul’s restaurant and saloon on M Street, “if you were a visitor of D.C., you had to go to Georgetown at one time or another. If you lived in the suburbs, you had to go to Georgetown — that was part of the trip. Now that we have restaurants on 14th Street and H Street, there are other options.”

The Martin family, owners of Martin’s Tavern, have watched as other locally owned institutions — such as Nathans Restaurant, Swenson’s and the Third Edition — closed.

“All these bars started changing a few years ago, whether they became corporate or franchise, they just aren’t really locally owned any more. So a lot of the uniqueness of Georgetown has faded or has lost the battle against the recession,” said Mayu Horie Lasch, general manager of Martin’s.

The Georgetown Business Improvement District, a group funded by commercial property owners and merchants, has begun floating ideas for how to retool the neighborhood. The idea, said Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the BID, is to think big. “It’s about how the place feels, how it functions and the infrastructure that goes into all of that,” he said.

Sternlieb has begun convening focus groups and task forces to rank priorities. In the initial meetings, “all people wanted to talk about was parking and transportation,” said the former city official and developer for the real estate firm EastBanc.

Here’s a look at some of the bigger ideas on the table.

Doublewide sidewalks

Anyone who heads to Georgetown to shop on a sunny weekend knows what they’re getting into: Sidewalks that are mobbed with people, overcrowding the corners and spilling into the streets, particularly when Georgetown University is in session.

Sternlieb says the neighborhood could accommodate more shoppers and diners if it made more space for walking, even if it was at the expense of parallel parking spaces. His idea is to lease spaces along M Street on Saturdays and Sundays and block them off for pedestrians. “When you double the width of the sidewalks, you actually more than double the number of people who can go there,” he says.

Among the hurdles: Many Georgetown businesses are concerned about there being too little parking already. Also, Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy and planning at the D.C. Department of Transportation, said the city would have to be reimbursed for all the lost  parking meter revenue. “I don’t think we’ve blocked off parking spaces for a festival or singular type event like that in the past,” he said.

Build a gondola lift

No, not for skiing. A handful of cities worldwide have built gondola lifts, or enclosed cable cars, for urban transportation purposes. Sternlieb was impressed by one he saw in Portland, Ore., which transports commuters up a steep grade to a medical campus, shortening commute times.

In Georgetown, Sternlieb said, an urban lift could connect the neighborhood over the river to Rosslyn or maybe to the Foggy Bottom Metro station. Yes the idea would require approvals from a myriad of government agencies and residents’ groups. But it would likely be far cheaper than adding another bridge or tunnel. Like Georgetown, it could be partly geared to locals and partly to tourists. It would certainly add some pizzazz. “It’s a big idea, and that’s what we want to generate,” Sternlieb said.

Tablet computers for real-time bus arrivals

Seven bus lines service Georgetown, and during peak periods, 55 buses an hour pass through the intersection at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. The most popular, the 38B line, carries 1,900 passengers a day, according to the BID.

The city plans to expand the reach of the Circulator bus, which connects Georgetown with Dupont Circle, downtown and Union Station, to the U Street area, which restaurateurs think will improve commutes for their staff.

But Sternlieb is looking at ways to improve the service for residents who typically wouldn’t ride the bus. He has begun inquiring with store owners near bus stops about whether they would be amenable to having iPads bolted to their storefronts that could provide real-time bus arrival info for passengers.

Add a Metro station

Historians, including Zachary M. Schrag, author of “The Great Society Subway,” attribute the lack of a Georgetown Metro statio to the engineering difficulties posed by a steep tunnel under the Potomac River. Others claim Georgetown residents wanted to keep the riffraff out of their cherished enclave.

In either case, the idea is back on the table. In Metro’s $26 billion strategic plan, the transit agency proposes building a second tunnel under the Potomac River to Arlington, in large part to relieve a choke point at the Rosslyn station that is only likely to worsen when the Silver Line begins servicing Fairfax County. This could be in addition to a streetcar line, which the city plans as a connection between Georgetown and downtown.

This time, Sternlieb said, there is no doubt the Georgetown stakeholders want a Metro stop. “It’s a vision, 15 years from now, to have a Metro station or have one under construction,” he said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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