Georgetown Retail

This is an update to my notes from last July (found here). Update since: By the time the summer ended the city had cleaned up the graffiti and fixed several of the sidewalks—great job! However, there are still issues to discuss such as the retail vacancies.

I attended the “The Future of Georgetown” meeting on 1/15/19 hosted by the amazing Citizens of Georgetown (CAG) group and spectacular Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2E) but came away a bit disappointed with what the Georgetown Business Improvement District (BID) presented as the areas future of retail.

The BID spent 30 minutes of the presentation on why it’s so hard to have a good retail ecosystem in Georgetown (i.e. Amazon, unrealistic landlords/rents, awkward spaces in old buildings) and how many retailers are going out of business.  They also painted a picture on why it’s not as bad as it looks –even though I counted 19 vacancies when I walked down Wisconsin Ave to get to the meeting. …but what really got to me was at the end of their presentation they said that this is all part of a cycle and Georgetown’s business district will still be here when other locations fail—and that’s just not a good way to manage the area’s future (i.e. telling people to wait and have hope).  I personally don’t think this is a cycle—retail as we have known it is dying and if we don’t have a well thought out strategy for how to grow with these changes then the business district will die a slow death and Georgetown will no longer be the tourist destination or the exciting place to live that it is currently.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderful community (in a remarkable city) with a beautiful waterfront and a great plan for the canal (being done by the same team that did NYC High Line)—but we need a better plan for our diminishing retail market than wait for the cycle to rebound.  This 2028 strategic plan is good and the update speaks volumes but we need to have a more thoughtful discussion about the Georgetown retail problem (everything needs to be on the table—policy, zoning, investment etc.).

I don’t disagree with anything the BID laid out in regards to our challenges (most big city retail communities are facing the same issues) but what the presentation made me think is that the ‘Free Market’ is not working for Georgetown’s retail district if online commerce is hurting it, absent/uncaring landlords are leaving spaces vacant for years and the city infrastructure is not desirable because it’s old/lacks parking & a metro—and when the free market doesn’t work policymakers need to get involved. I didn’t see any policy ‘makers’ (Jack-Ward 2, Kenyan-Chair Committee on Bus & Economic Dev) at the meeting but I may have missed them—however I would not have expected them at the meeting as the ANC had it covered very well and that is our voice to the policy makers–and they did ask for our feedback (hence this update)!

What I hear from the community is that Georgetown visitors and locals want great restaurants, art & entertainment, shopping, and experiences—but most importantly they want Georgetown to stay relevant to the world as a brand destination and a great place to live. The ANC asked for feedback and ideas:

Maybe to ensure Georgetown stays relevant we could:

  • Make it harder for landlords to leave storefronts vacant via new legislative policies (examples & risks). 
  • Create income tax abatements for commercial building rehab or new development (example from Falls Church VA).
  • Ring-fence grant funding for the types of businesses we want to attract (maybe extend this program to include M Street and understand if it worked for Wisconsin and push to increase funding).
  • Revisit zoning laws for Wisconsin Avenue (old article)
  • Invest in a metro rather than a gondola 😊 (old article)
  • Learn from others success… Just look across the river at https://nationallanding.com/

We also have an incredible resource of entrepreneurs & professors at the Georgetown MBA (ranked #19 in US) and Legal schools within the University–Maybe we could lean on them for some help…   

Just some ideas—I’ll add more as I read about other’s successes…

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