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How Georgetown is doubling the width of sidewalks and building parks in the street

A lot is required of the main streets in Georgetown: Wisconsin Avenue and M Street.

They comprise one of the city’s most popular shopping districts, serving shoppers from the neighborhood and around the region. They are a center of student life for Georgetown University. They are also a thoroughfare to and from Northern Virginia for commuters heading over the Key Bridge.

On a Saturday, they can get extremely busy —  with cars backed up and the sidewalks so crowded that pedestrians overflow off the curbs and into the street.

Georgetown shop owners, through the Georgetown Business Improvement District, are experimenting with a new strategy for alleviating the congestion on one of the busiest of Georgetown shopping days, the French Market. During the French Market, boutiques, antique shops, restaurants and galleries bring their wares out onto the sidewalks. They are joined by musicians, mimes, art demonstrations and other attractions. All of it adds pressure to Wisconsin Avenue. The street and sidewalks are packed.

During last year’s French Marke,t the BID decided to try doubling the width of the sidewalks, by blocking off 14 parallel parking spaces along the 1600 block of Wisconsin Avenue, a part of the neighborhood called Book Hill that serves as the center of the French Market. The BID rented barriers to block off the parking spaces and made the street space safe for pedestrians to walk in. The width of the sidewalks was effectively doubled.

Some of the concerns about the experiment were obvious: Why take away parking when it is already difficult to find spaces in Georgetown? Won’t that push more drivers to meander through the neighborhood’s residential areas in search of a space? Other concerns have to do with whether a more routine widening of the sidewalks might take away from the neighborhood’s historic layout.

“Originally I think some people were a little afraid because, ‘Oh well, we’d have fewer people coming in and out,’ ” said Susan Calloway, owner of Susan Calloway Fine Arts, at 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 

But that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, it can be dangerous trying to park with all the people on and around the sidewalk.”

Did the wider sidewalks help business? Calloway said she sold out of a line of reasonably priced Middle Kingdom porcelain, mostly bowls and vases. She said she might have been able to do that without the wider sidewalks, but she thinks she got much more visibility as a result.

“It’s not so much the business doing better or worse. It’s how many people come through and back,” she said.

Other cities have begun experimenting with different uses for parking spaces in particularly dense areas, said Lisa Rother, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s local office. Some neighborhoods, including Georgetown, have temporarily turned parking spaces  into seating areas or concrete parks. The experiments, she said, open people’s minds to the idea that streets are not just for cars.

“The idea really is to make the connection that parking spaces take away from public spaces,” she said.

Recently the BID decided to expand its sidewalk widening pilot program, including at this year’s French Market, in April. To do so, it is going to have to address the parking shortage as well. Joe Sternlieb, chief executive of the BID, said he is looking at how to arrange agreements with operators of large parking garages at Georgetown University and the West End, which aren’t heavily used on the weekends. 

“You don’t need wider sidewalks at nine o’clock on a morning on a Tuesday in Georgetown, but you really do at noon on a Saturday in the spring,” Sternlieb said. “So what we can do is to have the cars parked, not in the neighborhoods, but can we get deals from the garages that might even be closed or on the outskirts of Georgetown and give people passes so they can park there.”

“There’s this quiet movement to re-think what these public spaces are for. Are they only for private vehicles or are they for the people who actually live in the city to use?” he added.

Will Georgetown shoppers be okay with parking in the West End and riding a shuttle to Wisconsin and M streets? Sternlieb  isn’t sure yet but he doesn’t see a way to bring more people into the neighborhood unless they are on foot.

“The only way to move those people around is to move more people around on the sidewalks than in cars. There’s no other way because there’s no other way to move. You can’t do it by putting more of them in cars,” Sternlieb said. 

Another matter is how to reimburse the city for the lost parking meter revenue. For the French Market last year, Sternlieb said the BID wrote the city a check for the cost of parking at four of the spaces for the day and the Department of Transportation let the other 10 go for free. After doing some quick math, Sternlieb says he thinks the city got a good deal.

“I would wager that they did better that day in sales tax from French Market than they would have done at the parking meter,” he said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz