Georgetown used to be DC’s premier shopping district, but development downtown and in other neighborhoods, coupled with the lack of a Metro station, have made it lose some of its luster. A new “Georgetown 2028” plan lays out strategies to spruce up the neighborhood’s commercial areas.
The Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) worked with community groups, residents, the university, and the city to reach consensus on proposals. That gives the plan a lot more chance of becoming reality, but it does also mean that in several key areas it just calls for more studies where there wasn’t consensus.
The neighborhood stands solidly behind getting a Metro station, if it can. The plan also suggests studies for an aerial gondola to Rosslyn, an idea that initially seems kind of far-fetched, but is also intriguing. Supporters like BID Executive Director Joe Sternlieb are confident it is a more cost-effective way to move a lot of people; it’ll be interesting to see a more detailed analysis when one is ready.
There’s also a suggestion to build a pedestrian and bicycle bridge from the waterfront to Roosevelt Island, and then on to Virginia.
Most of the proposals in the plan are smaller aesthetic improvements that can polish up what’s already there. If and when a streetcar comes to K Street, that street will need a lot of facelift elements to make it feel more like a gateway to the neighborhood as opposed to a back alley.
To better connect K to the main strip on M, the plan suggests studying a bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the C&O Canal west of 33rd Street, and redesigning the one at 33rd, as well as improving other connections. The idea is to integrate K and M and the blocks in between as an integrated district, says Topher Mathews, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and board member of the Citizens’ Association of Georgetown who participated in developing the plan.
More buildings south of M could have ground-floor retail, especially once there will be much more foot traffic along those streets between M and the streetcar on K. Where retail isn’t possible, maybe there can be public art and seating:
Improve connections west, east, and south
The plan talks about ways to better connect Georgetown University to the neighborhood. One is a simpler pedestrian connection to M Street, perhaps passing through buildings like the Car Barn or new buildings like one that could replace the gas station at the foot of the Key Bridge.
In the longer term, it calls for a study about how to connect the streetcar to the university. But if the streetcar is down on K/Water Street, that probably means some kind of tunnel under the mountain. If there’s a way to get the money for it, that could then bring the streetcar even across the university and up to neighborhoods to the north, but tunnels are not cheap.
On the eastern side of the neighborhood, Rock Creek Parkway and the ramps to and from the Whitehurst create a formidable barrier for anyone not in a car (and sometimes even in one) between Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.
Suggestions in the plan include a clear and comfortable pedestrian route to and from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, and a better bicycle connection between the Capital Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Parkway trail. For drivers, there’s a suggestion to let the off-ramp from southbound Rock Creek become a reversible ramp for northbound traffic in the afternoon peak, when Rock Creek Parkway is one-way.
And lots more
The C&O Canal is a real jewel, but limited NPS resources and restrictive rules mean people don’t have many chances to enjoy it. One section of the plan talks about enlivening the canal, but at this point there aren’t many details. Rather, it calls for a “multi-stakeholder” process to figure out how to better use the canal.
And how about real-time information? The Georgetown BID is working with TransitScreen, the company Matt Caywood founded to commercialize the open source screens Eric Fidler built on a fellowship for Arlington’s Mobility Lab. (Disclosure: I was involved in managing the Mobility Lab project as well.)
The plan suggests piloting and then expanding screens in shop windows, as well as real-time signs or screens to give information about parking availability. (That’s assuming, of course, the BID can work out something acceptable to the historic review boards.)
What’s not in the plan: better parking management and wider sidewalks
However, also notable is the absence of some of the more significant ways to improve Georgetown, but which are also controversial. As is often the case, it mostly comes down in some way to parking.
The sidewalks on M Street are far too narrow for the volume of pedestrians along there. Yet a lane on each side serves as parking, even though only a very small number of cars can park along M and bring only a very tiny minority of shoppers.
Working groups for the plan explored widening sidewalks, but there wasn’t enough consensus among people in the neighborhood to reallocate the tight space among pedestrians, rush hour driving, parking, and more. Some argued that the narrow sidewalks were even a historic feature of the neighborhood that had to be preserved as is.
The plan alludes to this dissent, with statements like, “Proposals for permanent sidewalk widening on principal corridors have raised concerns over the potential impact on Georgetown’s already heavy traffic congestion. Any sidewalk widening efforts should focus on creating space where, and when, it is most needed.”
Instead of recommending any widenings, the plan more vaguely suggests trying some pilot projects on weekends to temporarily widen sidewalks when traffic is low, and to put “parklets” on some side streets. Perhaps if those succeed and residents see the sky doesn’t fall, they can become permanent on weekends, or even permanent at all times.
One reason some fear losing the parking on M is that shoppers headed for M often circle nearby streets to look for free 2-hour (or, on Sundays, all-day) parking. The private lots are fairly expensive, while the streets are free. However, a few spaces on M won’t really change this dynamic: the simple fact is that all of those meter spaces are almost always full, and free parking is really appealing compared to pay garages.
I personally have spent 15 minutes or more driving around the blocks near M to find a free space when none of the meters was available and my wife and I needed to do some quick shopping. The problem is that most of the garages, like many around the city, are something like $9 for the first hour and $15 for 2 hours or all day; it’s one thing if you’re going to stay a long time, but for a 1½ hour shopping trip it seems exorbitant.
Plus, there’s always the chance of getting a free space just around the corner. When you first arrive, you might as well drive around to see if there’s a space. Once you’ve been at it a while, it psychologically seems even more silly to give up on spending all that time and go pay the same amount you’d have paid from the start in a garage. Any minute you might find something (and, eventually, you do!)
A simple solution to this is to require drivers who aren’t Georgetown residents to pay for curbside parking on residential blocks using the pay-by-phone system. The rate can be lower than the garages for short term parking but high enough to push longer-term parkers to the garages. At the very least it would generate money that could help pay for some of the elements of this plan.
DDOT parking manager Angelo Rao convened some meetings last year to talk about this possibility, which had support from advocates and some ANC commissioners, but they encountered significant opposition from a number of residents. Rao is now no longer at the agency, and many neighborhood leaders have now abandoned efforts to allow paying for parking on residential streets, according to contributor Ken Archer, who participated in the working groups. Mathews notes, however, that other parking ideas might still gain consensus.
A Metro station would be great, but it’s a long way off and may never happen. In the meantime, there are ways Georgetown can better use its street space that balance the needs of all road users, but that will mean making some changes that aren’t popular with everybody.