In 1985, small-businesses owner Moses Robbins, closing down his Georgetown clothing store after almost 15 years, envisioned the downfall of the neighborhood’s retail district.
“Georgetown will eventually become another sleepy mall, with the successful stores being the chains,” he told The Washington Post at the time.
The evidence today points in his favor. The main commercial strips of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue are largely comprised of storefronts for national retailers; the block of M Street bordered by Potomac Street and Wisconsin Avenue contains just five locally based stores — four of which are restaurants — out of the 33 locations currently operating. As of last year, on the Georgetown section of M Street, property owned or leased by national retailers makes up around two-thirds of the curb.
What Robbins told the Post next, however, was not as prescient.
“Eventually, there will no longer be a reason to come shopping here,” he said, asserting that a lack of individualism among retail options would spell doom for the District’s oldest neighborhood.
Robbins, in that regard, has yet to be proven right, as Georgetown is still going strong. The Georgetown Business Improvement District estimates that in 2013, “accommodation and food services” and “retail trade” accounted for more than 4,000 jobs in the neighborhood and that the neighborhood’s retail gap — the difference in dollars between how much residents spend and the amount of money businesses earn, which gives a picture of how much commerce comes from outside Georgetown — for dining and retail businesses reached nearly $250 million.
The Washington, D.C., of 1985, a city already in decline and approaching ruin from a soon-to-explode crack cocaine epidemic, was very different from the Washington, D.C., of today, and the same is true for Georgetown. As the District adjusts to an influx of millennials — adding more than any other American metropolitan area from 2010 to 2012 — Georgetown is dealing with changes of its own.
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Aside from the buildings themselves, the safe and sterile M Street shares little with its counterpart 30 years ago. Rowdy, loud and messy, Georgetown was defined by its bars, clubs, late-night restaurants and cheap clothing stores, more closely resembling a stereotypical college town than the upper-class residences surrounding it. The crowds that these offerings brought with them, usually very young, sat uneasily next to the established upscale retail options and houses that had defined Georgetown since the New Deal brought thousands of government workers to the area.
While Maryland raised its drinking age to 21 in 1982 and Virginia did the same in 1985, the District of Columbia held out. This brought a huge influx of teenagers from the D.C. suburbs to Georgetown on Fridays and Saturdays that, when combined with the sizable university population, led to swells of 20,000 to 30,000 patrons, many of whom travelled by car, during the nighttime. Bars such as Bojangles, Crazy Horse, Garrett’s and Winston’s (now operating as Rhino Bar and Pumphouse) depended on these patrons for business; the owner of Bojangles told the Washington Post in 1985 that 18-year-olds made up half of his clientele.
Concerned neighbors and small-business owners were not only intimidated by the boisterous crowds but were also afraid of a total youth takeover of Georgetown, where more and more stores would cater to their interests.
“The only businesses which will survive will be the junk places that sell ice cream and T-shirts,” Dave Roffman, the editor of the Georgetowner newspaper, said to the Post in 1985.
An increased police presence brought down the rising rates of burglary and theft. But two initiatives in particular would have an even greater impact on cooling off the neighborhood’s raucous nightlife.
The first was the raising of the drinking age in the District to 21. In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which cut federal highway funding for any state or territory that allowed its residents under the age of 21 to purchase alcohol. Even after neighboring Virginia passed a law raising their minimum age for purchase in 1985, the issue was not guaranteed to pass the D.C. Council.
Years before then-Mayor Marion Barry issued a statement supporting the rise in minimum age in July 1986, Georgetown groups had stood behind proposals to raise the age limit. Though a mercurial 1983 bill by Ward 2 Councilmember John A. Wilson to raise the drinking age lacked the support of the Georgetown Business & Professional Association, the movement picked up steam two years later. Bucking the Washington D.C. Restaurant and Beverage Association, who claimed the bill would decimate restaurants and bars, were 76 Georgetown restaurants and bars that signed a petition in support of Wilson’s 1985 bill, which was firmly supported by then-Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E Chair William Cochran but opposed by student advocacy group D.C. Students Association.
Although the bill did not pass that year, a mayoral endorsement and pressure from the federal government made Sept. 30, 1986, the final day that 18-year-olds could legally drink in D.C.
Topher Matthews, the editor of the Georgetown Metropolitan, points to a different catalyst: the 1989 Georgetown liquor license moratorium, which placed a cap on the number of licenses available in the neighborhood.
“The idea was, ‘Let’s cap it and try to encourage fewer liquor establishments,’” Matthews said.
Georgetown’s moratorium, the first of its kind in the District, created a constraint on the supply of licenses, driving up their prices. Bars looking to open in Georgetown, therefore, continue to face entry costs more significant than those in other areas of D.C., such as the U Street corridor, that don’t have moratoriums in place. These caps also hurt restaurants, which are also customers for liquor licenses, as they face similar barriers to the bars the moratorium was supposed to deter.
These actions did not kill the old Georgetown’s bars in one fell swoop, but when combined with the growth of nightlife in other nearby sections of the city, they paint a picture of what Georgetown’s commercial district has lost over the past 30 years.
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What Georgetown has gained in place of nightlife is an influx of national retail clothiers and smaller luxury stores, which define the neighborhood today as its bars and theaters did in the 1980s. No longer anything near the undisputed nightlife capital of the District, Georgetown can now stake a claim for being chief among the city’s retail options for tourists and residents alike.
Complaints from local business owners about Georgetown’s creeping genericism neither begin nor end with Moses Robbins; the Post published an article entitled “Georgetown’s Local Color Fading Away Fast,” focused on the closing of Meenehan’s Hardware Store, in 1981, and another called “This Is How Georgetown Goes Generic,” about the closing of Nathan’s Restaurant on the corner of Wisconsin and M, in 2009.
One possible detriment to small businesses often cited is the additional levels of zoning approval businesses must endure to operate in Georgetown. In addition to requiring approval from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, as is the case throughout D.C., those looking to make any sort of building modification in Georgetown need to also get approval from the Old Georgetown Board, a committee of three architects tasked with ensuring all approved proposals fit the neighborhood’s historic, colonial-era character — a process Georgetown is in the final stages of for its Northeast Triangle dormitory. If the board does not approve proposed designs, applicants must create new plans and resubmit designs until approval is granted. Large retailers, buoyed by more available capital, tend to have a greater ability to weather the potential back and forth that can go on between the OGB and businesses; Apple submitted five different proposals before its store at 1229 Wisconsin Ave. NW was approved.
Local experts, however, are reluctant to blame increased bureaucracy for the proliferation of national chains.
“It’s a hassle for everyone,” Matthews said, “but larger national chains have the expense accounts to deal with more.”
Matthews also pointed out, however, that the OGB’s mission of historical preservation has concurrently benefited small businesses by ensuring the size of M Street’s rentable buildings remains small. Because small businesses are less capable of taking a hit on rent than national chains, buildings with less square footage are vital for small businesses to survive. Large retailers cannot simply knock down smaller spaces to fit their needs; they need to occupy the same amount of space as the smaller retailers, which are more adept at adapting to such constraints.
“It kind of cuts both ways,” Matthews said.
Josh Hermias, the economic development director for the Georgetown BID, had a slightly different view.
“I don’t think it hurts [small businesses] in any different way,” Hermias said, citing similar hurdles faced by the Apple Store and local music venue Gypsy Sally’s, whose proposed sign was deemed, in the June 3, 2013 ANC 2E meeting, to have “objectionable dimensions.”
“[The approval process] is different from other parts of the city, but Georgetown is different from other parts of the city,” he said.
In addition, Georgetown is currently seeing the conversion of former restaurant and bar spaces into ones used for retail.
Matthews, who compiles a yearly list of the businesses currently operating in Georgetown, has been monitoring this trend.
“Since 2010, eight different restaurants have gone out of business and not been replaced by restaurants,” Matthews said. These conversions include clothing store Gant in Saloun’s former location and retailer Billy Reid in the building once occupied by Pizzeria Uno.
This shift applies to quality as well as quantity. According to the Georgetown BID, there were six Georgetown restaurants on Washingtonian magazine’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list in 2000. By 2013, there were just two: Bourbon Steak and Unum.
As the influx of national retailers drives up rent on M Street, Hermias is looking to areas he thinks have potential to house new restaurants, including the ground floors of Georgetown’s office buildings. In general, this corresponds with the BID’s plan to spread the retail concentration around to more areas of the neighborhood, especially the streets south of M near the waterfront.
“Currently, Georgetown is commercially very linear,” Hermias said. “A grid plan is more pedestrian friendly.”
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The loss of a significant number of Georgetown’s bars and late-night options has run contrary to the neighborhood’s population growth. From 2000 to 2012, the population of 20-to-24-year-olds in Georgetown rose by nearly 40 percent, largely because of an increase in student enrollment at the university. This group is now the most populous census-designated age bracket in the neighborhood, making up around 30 percent of the population. Yet this rise has run parallel to the downfall of the stereotypically “collegiate” options that dominated in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
Hermias is optimistic about the present and the future of the neighborhood’s student options, citing the recent openings of student-relevant stores such as Buffalo Exchange, Bonobos and T.J. Maxx & Home Goods.
“That is a positive evolution for students,” Hermias said. “I think it’s a great time to be a student at Georgetown.”
While many of the stores that have appeared in the Georgetown area are suited to a far higher budget, such as the designer label brands Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, student Jared Ison (SFS ’17) believes that this doesn’t isolate students.
“I think Georgetown students know that when they come here, that they are living in a very expensive part of town,” he said. “It’s just part of the experience. So while I don’t think it’s very cheap here, Georgetown students mostly know what they’re getting themselves in for.”
Betsy Cooley, the executive director for the Citizens Association of Georgetown, agrees that the current retail situation fits the character of the neighborhood well.
“Georgetown is such a diverse community. I think there are retail options for everyone,” Cooley wrote in an email. “It’s always good to have a mix — and we definitely have that.”
After leaving Georgetown, Moses Robbins began running a successful thrift shop in Mt. Pleasant, a gentrifying section of the city, in 2004. He did not respond to requests for comment. The city has gained a massive amount of residents aged 25 to 34 — nearly 40,000 from 2000 to 2012, with the number only growing — who are moving to neighborhoods like the one where Robbins works. Restaurants are opening along the 14th Street corridor at a blazing pace, and the city’s nightlife is now centered on places like U Street and H Street NE. These residents, for better or for worse, are driving the commercial future of the District.
Georgetown, whose millennial population has remained stagnant, is stuck in a bind: Should it continue focusing on attracting national retail chains, waiting for the newcomers to settle down? Should it pull out all the stops to attract millennials in an attempt to regain the trendy vibe it had in the ’80s? Or should it do nothing at all?
Even if Georgetown does try, it could take a little extra effort to combat perceptions of the neighborhood that have formed over the past few decades.
“The new Czech place — Capitol Prague — you don’t hear a lot of people talking about it,” Matthews said. “Even when Georgetown puts out a good product, it doesn’t have that sheen of coolness.”