The DC Council held a hearing this afternoon on the Upper Georgia Avenue Great Streets Plan. Georgia Avenue is a long, continuous commercial corridor with some successful shops, some vacant ones, and many in between.
Kelly Shuy, proprietor of Ledo Pizza on Georgia Avenue and a resident of Shepherd Park, testified about the difficulty of maintaining a successful retail space in the corridor. The people and architecture in the neighborhood are wonderful, she said, but after eight years and much promise of revitalization Georgia Avenue “still serves as little more than a boundary line.” The many empty storefronts make Georgia “uninviting for local residents and for entering the city from Maryland.”
The streetscape itself is uninviting, with narrow sidewalks in many places and few pedestrian amenities. Shuy herself lives only two blocks from her pizzeria yet drives to and from work because “it’s the prudent thing to do.” She’d love to walk instead of drive, but the way Georgia is today, people don’t feel safe walking up and down the avenue to eat.
To solve this problem, the plan focuses on key “nodes”, including a “gateway” area near the Maryland border, at Piney Branch Road, and at Missouri Avenue. By filling in empty lots with street-facing retail and adding residential units above, the plan aims to create an inviting pedestrian experience with more local residents to support the businesses.
Needless to say, many residents spoke on both sides of this issue. One resident suggested the area instead emulate the Palisades (one of DC’s lowest density neighborhoods). Another specifically spoke to keep her corner (Georgia and Geranium) development-free because there is enough activity that people can’t always park directly in front of their houses. That didn’t affect her, since she has a curb cut and driveway, but sometimes the driveway gets blocked.
The most controversial part of the plan revolves around Walter Reed, currently slated to close in a few years. The federal government currently plans to reuse the property for some undetermined need, but Bowser is pushing to the feds to let DC develop the edge facing Georgia Avenue. Federal policy for secure facilities is to maintain a security “stand-off area”, but as the plan points out, “recent federal developments, such as the ATF Building on Florida and New York Avenues NW, have included ground floor retail in the stand-off area.”
If it is possible to develop the edge, the plan recommends a neighborhood park, a municipal parking garage with ground-floor retail, a “civic building with adjacent open-air marketplace plaza”, and finally moving fire engine company 22 to the southeast corner with a small retail building in front. The parking garage would provide more parking that could be shared between federal employees and neighborhood uses; the civic plaza would allow for farmers’ markets and outdoor conerts, and the fire station would speed response times throughout the ward (the current station is much farther south).
I’m not going to criticize the parking, because the fact is that this area still has insufficient transit and the corridor is struggling. More and more parking is a terrible idea on top of Metro stations or in areas with robust retail patronage today; here, we need more of a balance. Shuy said she located the pizza shop on a lot with parking, and Councilmember Kwame Brown gave a long speech about how he’s just not planning to take Metro from his home in Southeast up to Ledo Pizza.
The best solution is to build the proposed Georgia Avenue streetcar, making it much easier for Kwame Brown and other residents, commuters, and tourists to get to the Gateway area and the other “nodes”. Meanwhile, a balance on parking makes sense, though one anti-Walter Reed resident may have had a point when he said a big municipal garage at Walter Reed, where there’ll only be a small amount of retail unlike the Gateway Area, may be just the wrong place to put it.