As Washington development moves east, what does Georgetown represent today?

April 13

The little brick rowhouse on 32nd Street in Georgetown is hard to find, even with the Realtor’s sign in front. But the first weekend it’s listed, prospective buyers stream into the open house every five minutes.

They whisk through the spacious foyer, three bedrooms, two baths, a basement au-pair suite and luxurious backyard garden with a fire pit. They admire the renovations, rave about the location, and don’t bat an eye at the lack of parking or the price: $1,495,000, which means a $7,500-a-month mortgage, assuming 20 percent down.

Who’s willing to spend big money for a small piece of Georgetown? Empty nesters downsizing from their big house in the suburbs, 30-something couples making the leap from renters to homeowners and college-age kids (with Mom or Dad in tow) looking to upgrade from dorms or group houses. Even Ward 2 council member Jack Evans (D) and his wife, interior designer Michele Seiver Evans, pop by; they’re looking for an investment property where the older kids can live not far from their P Street homestead.

Washington’s center of gravity — the hip restaurants and slick condos multiplying on 14th Street NW, City Center and the H Street NE corridor — is headed farther and farther east. Meanwhile, in the popular imagination, Georgetown is frozen in the 1960s: John F. Kennedy bouncing down the steps of a grand townhouse, drunk politicians and spies debating the Cold War, and rich wives hosting those famous dinner parties.

In reality, there are three Georgetowns: the legendary enclave of political power and influence celebrated in books and movies, the actual 263-year-old village and today’s Georgetown, a place filled with a new generation of Washington elites. They’re young professionals — let’s call them urban traditionalists — with a passion for history, a vision of less-is-more city living and gobs of private-sector money. It takes a village to preserve the village.

“People wax nostalgic about Georgetown and the good old days,” Jack Evans says. “But this is the golden age of Georgetown.”

***

Kevin Plank, as the legend goes, founded athletic apparel giant Under Armour in the basement of his grandmother’s Georgetown home. Like most legends, it’s both fact and fiction.

As a young widow in the 1940s, Lillian Harper Audette started buying and selling houses in Georgetown to support her family. The self-described “tough old broad” acquired two more husbands and several properties, teaching her young grandson business and real estate along the way. “I learned Georgetown from the ground up,” says the 41-year-old billionaire. “It always feels like home to me.” Plank started his global empire out of one of his grandmother’s houses on 35th Street; his mom still owns the house.

Plank can afford to live anywhere. The sixth-generation Washingtonian has a big horse farm in Maryland, a “postage stamp of a house” in Georgetown and, as of last year, one of the most famous properties in the historic neighborhood: the 34th Street former home of David Bruce, U.S. ambassador to Britain, France, Germany, China and NATO, and his wife Evangeline, an international socialite famed for entertaining in what was called Washington’s “unofficial embassy.” Plank paid $8 million for the 11,000-square-foot property (built in 1815), enamored by its legacy and ready to make his mark on the city.

“You can feel and smell the history,” Plank says. “Georgetown, to me, always feels important.”

It is the oldest neighborhood in Washington, started as a tobacco port in 1751 and soon full of merchants, slaves and laborers. The successful businessmen built mansions overlooking the Potomac; Georgetown University was founded in 1789, creating an uneasy partnership that lives to this day. Gentrification, as it always does, took its toll; what once included a thriving African American community became almost entirely white except for the historical black churches.

It always attracted the rich and powerful, although it didn’t become world famous until Kennedy was elected president and the glamorous new first family moved from their N Street townhouse to the White House. Georgetown is still home to political power brokers such as John F. Kerry, Valerie Jarrett, Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright, C. Boyden Gray and Ben Bradlee.

But there’s also a younger generation of private-sector millionaires drawn by the prestige of Georgetown’s past: Robert Allbritton, who bought a $25 million mansion on Q Street; Michael Saylor, who lives in a massive modern penthouse overlooking the Potomac; and Bill Dean, who famously hosts a July Fourth pool party at the old Dodge Mansion on P Street. Georgetown has the highest concentration of $5 million-plus properties in the region, including the eye-popping acquisitions of biotech entrepreneurs Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno, who paid $22 million for Evermay and $11 million for Halcyon House in 2011.

When Jefferson Hotel owner Connie Milstein moved to the District in 2004, she only looked for houses in Georgetown. “To me, it’s living history,” she says. “I love the idea that it has transformed itself so many times.”

Two years ago, she upgraded from her first place on 31st Street to an $11 million, eight-bedroom house on R Street. She needed the backyard pool for her arthritis, but the real selling point was the home’s pedigree: It once belonged to disgraced former Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas and his cigar-smoking wife, Carolyn.

But it was investor Mark Ein who bought what may be the most famous home in Georgetown: the 1784 Beall-Washington house on the corner of R and 30th Street, better known as the home of Katharine Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post. For decades, the house was the epicenter of Washington’s social circuit, and there was great speculation who would get the property after she died in 2001. The answer was a surprise to almost everyone: Ein, who bought it for $8 million in 2002.

The 30-something bachelor had been searching all over Washington for something special and kept coming back to Georgetown. “There’s a sense of perspective and time that you don’t find when you’re in the suburbs or a newer community,” says Ein, who grew up in Chevy Chase. He’d never been in Graham’s house before the agent showed it to him; he loved the big rooms and outdoor space — the property sits on more than an acre of land, something almost impossible to find in Georgetown. But the old house, like so many others in the neighborhood, needed a lot of work. A decade later, Ein still hasn’t moved in, although his wedding to Sally Stiebel was held on the lawn last fall, and the couple plan to live there eventually. No rush; the Washington Kastles owner can afford to wait.

“I don’t want to sound corny about it, but I care so much about this country and what it represents,” Ein says. “I think Washington, more than any other city, embodies those things — and Georgetown embodies all of that in Washington.”

***

Diana Minshall isn’t rich or famous, nor are most of her younger neighbors. But the 30-year-old Realtor and her friends are, in a very traditional way, at the heart of Georgetown’s back-to-the-city movement — albeit a wealthy, privileged part of the city.

She grew up in Chevy Chase, the granddaughter of an Ohio congressman, and had the whole suburban-big-house-big-yard-car-pool childhood. Nine years ago, when she had a summer internship with Georgetown real-estate agent Nancy Taylor Bubes, Minshall was assigned to her first open house. It was love, want, need at first sight.

“I called my dad and said, ‘You have to buy this house.’ ” The property on Q Street was tiny — two bedrooms, two baths — but with a huge backyard and a two-car driveway, and it was directly across from Volta Park. Price tag? Just over a million. The deal? Her parents would buy it, rent it out and Minshall would eventually buy it from them. Minshall now lives in and co-owns the property.

She has 20 friends living within a 10-block radius, walks to stores, restaurants and the George Town Club, where she runs the young professionals group. She put a beehive in her backyard — one way of doing her part for the environment. When the time comes, she hopes to marry and raise children in Georgetown instead of moving back to the suburbs, and so do her friends.

Make no mistake: The threshold for buying into Georgetown is $1 million, which sounds crazy until you realize prices for homes on 14th Street and in Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill aren’t that much lower. Not everybody is wealthy: There are homeowners who inherited property or bought 30 or 40 years ago, paid off the mortgage and now live in a very valuable asset. For everyone else, moving in requires cash and a lot of it: $200,000 or more for a down payment, although plenty of buyers are coming in with all-cash offers, Bubes says. For many of her clients, their home search starts and ends in Georgetown. “Your New York and European customer will compromise anything to stay here,” Bubes says.

The one market Georgetown has a hard time keeping is families with school-aged kids, although even that trend is slowly starting to reverse. More young parents are sending their kids to local public schools, and there’s increasing pressure for Georgetown to get its own high school.

Real-estate developer John Cecchi, who started with a little fixer-upper on P Street, buys old four- and five-bedroom homes in Georgetown for $2.5 million, then updates them with modern amenities such as big closets and open floor plans. He thought his market would be younger families, but it’s empty nesters and out-of-towners willing to pay $4 million to $5 million because they want Georgetown but don’t want the dust of a major renovation.

***

If homeowners like to wax nostalgic about the past, retailers, by necessity, have to keep their eye on the future.

The skunk at the party involves Georgetown’s retail and restaurants and the ongoing battles between quaint local shops and national chains, residents and developers. They all want thriving businesses — but there’s a heated debate about what kind. The arrival last year of discount chain T.J. Maxx at Georgetown Park was met with disbelief, then dismay about what it might do to the character of the neighborhood.

Last year, the “Georgetown 2028: 15 Year Action Plan” was released, a comprehensive look at what works and what doesn’t along with practical solutions (more parking) and fanciful ideas (gondolas to ferry people across the river to the Rosslyn Metro station) to bring more customers back to the brick-lined streets.

What people forget, says Jack Evans, is that not long ago, “Georgetown was a little on the seedy side. The infrastructure was really weak.” Remember the exploding manhole covers? The city poured millions into a “little dig” to replace all the old utility lines, clean up the parks, replace the brick sidewalks, greenlighted the waterfront development and cleaned up most of the rowdy student bars — all of which enhanced the property values of every homeowner and landlord.

In 1991, Franco Nuschese picked a vacant storefront on Prospect Street to launch a casual, upscale new Italian restaurant. “When I first found the space, everyone said I was a fool and didn’t know what I was doing. What fascinated me was the university,” says Nuschese, who opened Cafe Milano the following year.

He expected his customers would be Georgetown’s young, affluent students and local residents. Instead, he drew senators, lobbyists, diplomats, heads of state and just about every boldface name in Washington. Now, Milano is a Washington institution, but not all Georgetown restaurants have been as lucky.

The reality is that the neighborhood — about 14,000 residents — can’t sustain the commercial base: Retailers need to attract the 30,000 students from the two surrounding universities and a healthy flow of tourists and customers from other neighborhoods.

To that end, Georgetown wants Metro — two stops, ideally. The community is eager to dispel the old trope that it resisted mass transit to keep the rest of Washington out. There’s probably some truth to that, but there was also fear, when the plans were first proposed 50 years ago, that digging a massive tunnel under the old houses would damage them irretrievably.

Developer and local booster Anthony Lanier takes a Zen-like long view . . . as in 250 years long: “Georgetown is constantly evolving.”

For two centuries, he says, Washington was filled with people who came to the federal city out of necessity, not choice, and Georgetown benefited from that influx. It was only in the past 30 years or so — thanks to private-sector wealth and investment — that Washington exploded into a multifaceted world capital. And in that capital, there’s no more livable place than Georgetown. “When I come to my village, I’m home,” he says.

And that little rowhouse selling for $1.5 million? Still on the market, but probably not for long.

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