More than 200 Georgetowners gathered on Thursday evening, Nov. 14, in the spacious vacant retail space of the former Georgetown Park mall to discuss — what else? — the problem of vacant stores in Georgetown. Sponsored by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, the meeting was co-hosted by the Citizens Association of Georgetown, the Georgetown-Burleith advisory neighborhood commission and Georgetown Main Street.
Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans addressed the crowd, asking: “What do you want Georgetown’s commercial district along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue to look like? We used to be known as a night entertainment center and as a unique retail destination.” He continued: “But both are mostly gone now and, despite millions of dollars in infrastructure improvement, Georgetown’s main business thoroughfares are dead right now.”
BID Director of Planning and Economic Development Jamie Scott reported that there is currently about an 11-percent retail vacancy rate. “That’s up from seven percent in 2015,” he said. “But of those, nine percent are truly vacant. The others have tenants or pending contracts and are awaiting approvals and reconstruction.”
High occupancy costs are one factor driving vacancy rates in Georgetown, according to Scott. Age, condition and configuration of the retail space are others, as well as complex building ownership arrangements. But online business doesn’t seem to be such a big factor here. About 10 percent of sales are online, and some brand-name internet retailers have opened up or are looking to open up brick-and-mortar stores in Georgetown, including Amazon.
“The biggest need in Georgetown is for more keystone cultural and entertainment businesses,” said BID CEO Joe Sternlieb. Such businesses are so popular and attractive that their overflow benefits other businesses nearby. In Northwest D.C., the Politics and Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue and Le Diplomat restaurant on Q and 14th Streets were cited as examples of keystone businesses that attract others.
After watching a series of slides on Georgetown retail, the crowd broke into three subgroups to share concerns and ideas about transportation and parking, regulations and retail. Preliminary summations found that the attendees were most concerned about the increasingly cumbersome, unpredictable and inconsistent review process of all projects by the Old Georgetown Board.
“Perhaps we need to prepare a white paper of obstructive cases by the OGB, as we did on the alcohol license moratorium, in order to foment change,” said BID Operations Director John Wiebenson.
But Hope Solomon, chair of Georgetown Main Street, suggested that rising BID fees from taxes, which had increased by 25 percent last year, were also detrimental to struggling small business.
The BID will be collating and analyzing notes and ideas garnered at the town forum to update its Retail Action Plan for Georgetown. Anyone wanting to add comments should email them to email@example.com.