How one organization hopes to transform Georgetown

If you squint, perhaps you can begin to envision it all, here on the banks of the Potomac, amid the skyline of red-brick Federals and Gothic towers:

Zippy cable cars flying across the river, alongside Key Bridge — which, by the way, is lit up like a glamorous Christmas tree.

A water crossing teeming with runners, all sprinting toward Roosevelt Island.

A streetcar (yes, we knowww) and a farmers market and, oh yes, a mule-drawn barge gliding, as it once did, along the C&O Canal.

Welcome to Future Georgetown. If a group that includes commercial interests and residents has its way — and raises the millions that would be required — this Tilt-a-Whirl shake-up of the historic neighborhood will be in place in the next 15 years, with the first big efforts taking shape in the next few months.

One year after the plan’s splashy launch, the first palpable elements of Future Georgetown are coming after a series of government approvals: a dock on the C&O Canal could be installed by this summer. Micro leisure areas, known as “parklets,” are slated to open as soon as this summer.

So, why is it that we can’t quite square the European-style courtyards and contemporary light installations of Future Georgetown with Current Georgetown, a strange mosaic of wealth, history and buttercream-hungry tourists?

“Georgetown is one of those neighborhoods people have a fixed vision of, simply because it hasn’t changed that much over time,” says Jane Freundel Levey, a consulting historian who specializes in the capital city. “A change to a less identifiable neighborhood is a little easier to take. But we have pictures in our mind of what Georgetown really looks like, and it’s lovely old mansions and it’s the streets with the teeny-tiny rowhouses, and it’s cobblestones and the old trees.”

A gondola in Logan Circle or Shaw or on H Street NE, sure. There, once-derelict properties have been so quickly replaced with coffeehouses, Trader Joe’s stores and CrossFit gyms that even longtime D.C. residents will occasionally rub their eyes in disbelief and ask, “When did that open?”

This almost never happens in Georgetown, where the houses still go to buyers of a certain stratosphere and the sidewalks are still brick, never mind that it’s hell on the stilettos of today’s well-heeled Georgetowner. It’s a quarter that, depending on your vantage point, is either admirably quaint or kind of oblivious.

“There’s no doubt that we’re aware of the new neighborhoods that are popping up and how important and fun and exciting they are,” says Pamla Moore, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, of areas such as Logan Circle. “And you want to also be a neighborhood that’s popular with people in the District. But Georgetown is different than all of these other areas.”

Sure. It’s insular. And touristy.

Future Georgetown proposes transforming lots the exact size of a single parking lot into parklets, green spaces with seating. (Sam Kittner/Georgetown Business Improvement District)

The Georgetown 2028 plan, as it’s known, could change that. The cable car system, known as a gondola lift, is inspired by the newfangled airborne transportation systems going up across Latin America and Europe. Illuminated bridges and pedestrian plazas are now common motifs in urban planning worldwide.

The gondola may get all the attention, but perhaps it’s because another proposal appears more far-fetched than a D.C. Olympic Games: the mysterious station marked on Metro’s plan for 2040, placed squarely on what — squinting again here — must be M Street.

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No change arrives in the District’s oldest neighborhood without serious hand-wringing.

In 1950, Congress designated a large hunk of land from Reservoir Road down to the edges of the Potomac River as Old Georgetown, a corner of America whose every alteration would be overseen federally, by the Commission of Fine Arts.

The commission’s Old Georgetown Board, helmed by three appointed architects, is Georgetown’s gatekeeper, keeping pop-ups and other offensiveness out while all the while letting change quietly seep in.

“You try to preserve what you can, how you can, of its character, but it has to be a living place,” says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the commission.

The most recent proof of life could be the lovely Georgetown Waterfront Park, completed in 2011.

“It took forever,” Moore recalls. With the waterfront, she says, “there was a lot of give and take with residents and what people thought would be good for the park. But I think now, most of us think we have an absolute gem.”

That win might have greased the wheels for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, which until recently had mostly occupied itself with maintaining cosmetic touches in the neighborhood and hosting events.

Then, a little more than a year ago, the agency unveiled its 15-year plan, which can be read as one part surrealist daydream and one part yawn-inducing tome on street signage. For every commuter carnival ride flying over the Potomac and every incandescent light show on Key Bridge, there are nods to seating, bike parking and sidewalk widening.

They seem like minor changes, but a few benches, it turns out, can do wonders. Pedestrian plazas are having a major impact in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, where they’re perking up street life and the receipts of nearby businesses.

Parks are no longer just for kids and picnickers, they’re attractions. Cities are debating what their twist on New York’s High Line should be, which flashy attraction could serve as both meditative public space and “Top of the Rock”-style tourism cash cow.

In Georgetown, the gondola lift, taking cues from London’s Emirates Air Line gondola and the successful Aerial Tram in Portland, Ore., could be all that and a way around an ever-growing traffic behemoth, couldn’t it?

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Yet it’s hard to picture Georgetown with this much whiz-bang transformation without feeling a little woozy.

“Mostly good ideas, but — gondolas? Really? There’s limited demand to get directly between those two points,” wrote one commenter on the Urban Turf blog.

Moore, who on behalf of her volunteer-run group took part in several months of discussion of the plans, says that the neighborhood’s estimated 15,000 residents won’t be the ones standing in the way of Future Georgetown.

If Georgetown has seemed impenetrable, she suggests, it’s only because no one has proposed change like this before.

Joe Sternlieb, an MIT-educated urban planner tapped in 2012 to lead the Georgetown Business Improvement District after helping remake downtown, doesn’t see the 75-point plan as especially radical. “I try to think big about the potential of places,” he says.

Focus on only the big recommendations, however, he says, “and we might not see any payoff for a very long time, which is not the way to move the District and Georgetown forward.” The 2028 plan is loaded with smaller, easy-to-tackle projects that keep the bigger vision plowing ahead.

If the BID can find the money (an amount in the tens of millions, but the total is unknown), the wilder ideas may not be out of reach, either. Even the contemporary lighting of the bridge can potentially fit right in, says Luebke, of the Commission of Fine Arts. It has worked even in stodgy London, which illuminated its Tower Bridge to stunning effect. “You’re looking at lighting that actually enhances the historic structure.”

“Historic preservation,” Luebke adds, “means protecting what’s actually historic. It doesn’t mean you have to make new stuff seem old. It’s not about trying to create a false history.”

Or remaining wedded to what exists for history’s sake.

Levey, the historian, has seen the proposals. She says that the plan, which includes a number of changes below M Street, hardly wipes away the past.

“The areas where they want to fix things up are not areas that are time capsules,” she says. “They’re areas that have been through lots of changes over time. . . . They were coal yards, they were warehouse districts.” And they haven’t seen much action in the past 40 years.

That won’t necessarily make it less challenging for Sternlieb and his team. But, he says, “if it was as easy to do a development in Georgetown as it is to put up a strip center on Route 29, Georgetown would look like Route 29.

“If it was easy, I’m not sure it would be better,” Sternlieb adds. “But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”