Street Smarts


Georgetown’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in Washington. And it feels that way. While other parts of the city have evolved into premier shopping destinations, dining hot spots and culture corridors, the upscale enclave has stayed staid. The historic streets aren’t lacking for visitors — or obnoxious students — but the area has lost cachet with locals.

And that’s why Joe Sternlieb of the Georgetown Business Improvement District is searching for ways to turn things around.

The Washington Post’s Capital Business peeked at a few of the “bigger ideas on the table,” including Sternlieb’s proposal to commandeer parking spaces along M Street on weekends. That would double the size of the sidewalks to make the street more comfortable for pedestrians, who are now crammed together. With the extra room, strolling around — and spending some money — would hopefully be a more pleasurable experience.

But why not go further? Give pedestrians all of the pavement instead of just a sliver of the street. If we’re looking for a way to make Georgetown really stand out despite its roster of huge chain stores, we should shut it down to cars and completely alter the landscape.

Dot it with street performers, roving merchants and fitness classes. Envision D.C.’s version of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.

Drivers may pout, but the street’s too clogged with cars for anyone looking to zip through town anyway. It’s better off as a vibrant symbol of Washington’s commitment to alternative modes of transportation. Without a Metro station in sight, visitors would be sure to test out Capital Bikeshare, or hop on a bus. (Another one of Sternlieb’s ideas — real-time bus arrival information screens — would make that doable.)

This dream is even backed up by an expert opinion. When I interviewed urban planner Jeff Speck last fall about his book “Walkable City,” we discussed the possibility of real pedestrianized streets here in D.C. He’s a fan of the concept, but said the only place with enough foot traffic to pull it off regularly is M Street in Georgetown.

Sounds like now is the right time to test his theory. We could start out with just a couple days, kind of like what New York does with its Summer Streets program.

That event — held three Saturdays in August — fills 7 miles of city thoroughfares with opportunities instead of automobiles. There have been dance parties, picnics, art displays and even a zip line. (Installing a cable car from Rosslyn happens to be another big idea for Georgetown, but I see greater potential for marketing adrenaline rushes over the Potomac.)

Closing down less than a mile of M Street is nothing compared to what other cities are doing. But it could mean everything to the future of the neighborhood.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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Marc Silver | June 27, 2013