Georgetown BID Criticized for Sidewalk Expansions, High Staff Costs

The Georgetown Business Improvement District – a non-profit organization originally dedicated to “a cleaner, safer, more accessible Georgetown” and supported by some $5.2 million of annual mandated supplemental taxes on businesses within its boundaries – has come under fire.

In a Nov. 27 Washington Post story, the conflict was reported as stemming from years-long bubbling unhappiness over the required tax payments and the high six-figure salaries of some of the organization’s professional, mainly academically-trained, urban planning staff, as well as some of the BID’s less-than-popular projects (e.g., an imagined aerial gondola between Georgetown and Arlington). The money should go directly to businesses, a two-year-old petition was quoted as demanding. 

These old issues, however, have been heated up by seething perceptions of disconnect during the difficult pandemic lock down, masking, social distancing and supply challenges facing many small Georgetown businesses. Many have had to reduce staff, access savings and face closing for good just as the BID staff has grown from 12 to 15 in the past years, along with Georgetown BID CEO Joe Sternlieb’s reported annual salary of $245,000. 

But the real heart of the unease with the BID is the fate of the tens of thousands of feet of extended sidewalks and platforms for expanded pedestrian commerce and outdoor dining in front of almost all of Georgetown’s eateries on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW and from K to S Street NW. The project was planned, implemented and managed as a year-long pilot by the Georgetown BID, which has now submitted an application to the Old Georgetown Board (OGB) to extend the pilot through December 2022.

Many businesses say that the sidewalk project has “saved Georgetown” by giving welcome additional space and livening up Georgetown’s evening commerce. But the expansion of sidewalks into parking and loading areas also took away more than 100 parking places that day businesses depended on for quick drop-ins and spontaneous shopping. 

Over the year, the BID has conducted some half a dozen town hall meetings, surveys and open calls for comment about whether or not the project should be extended and which sidewalks should remain expanded or not. The Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC 2E) has spent hours of time discussing the impact of expanded sidewalks and reduced parking – a discussion actually going back several terms of commissioners. A consensus seemed to have been building: “yes” to expanded areas for dining in front of eating establishments – the streateries; but “no” to most, if not all, of the expanded sidewalks, especially in front of long stretches of retail and some closed storefronts.

Decisions have been made apparently… but not everyone has gotten the message.

“BID will be removing tons of expanded sidewalks by January – some 1,400 feet of them,” Sternlieb told The Georgetowner on Nov. 29. “We will be presenting the plan, a list of expanded sidewalks that will be removed and a map at the ANC2E meeting tonight,” he added.

ANC 2E-07 Commissioner Elizabeth Miller takes issue with Sternlieb’s position on sidewalk extensions. “I don’t support any extended sidewalks,” she told The Georgetowner. “I haven’t seen plans to remove ‘tons’ of it but our definition of tons may not align. For me, it’s an aesthetics issue … I find them horribly unsightly and not at all fitting with the historic qualities of our quaint village.”

The plan will be reviewed by the OGB on Dec. 2. Various community organizations have requested community residents and businesses sign a petition

The Georgetown BID has submitted its final Wider Sidewalk application to both the OGB and DDOT’s Public Space. This application would extend the BID’s wider sidewalk pilot (concrete barriers and plastic sidewalks along parts of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue) until December 2022, according to the petition.

The Citizens Association of Georgetown and ANC 2E formally asked the BID to focus the second year of the pilot to only businesses with outside dining as with streateries. However, the BID wants to maintain several of the wider sidewalks that are not used for outside dining, the petition argues.

“The use of this public space is free at this time,” said Deborah Winsor who sent the petition to The Georgetowner. “Part of the BID’s mission is to benefit the residents as well.”  The petitioners request signers to Petition Opposing Widened Sidewalks and send comments to either or both of the organizations that will be considering the BID application: the OGB and the D.C. Department of Transportation’s Public Space Committee. 

Most business and community people interviewed for this story affirmed their support for the BID and its work in keeping the business areas clean as well as its projects on safety and homelessness – and its work in developing the platforms and streateries that have become a model for others throughout the country. 

Still, there are complaints about BID’s transparency and communication. And some say the BID is increasingly disconnected from main street.

To cite one recurring question, several shop keepers asked, “Where are the Christmas trees in Georgetown? In fact, where in Georgetown is Christmas?”


7 comments on “Georgetown BID Criticized for Sidewalk Expansions, High Staff Costs”

  • East Georgetowner says:

    BID is totally disconnected from the needs and desires of the businesses it purports to represent and has no concern whatsoever for residents. This unaccountable agency and needs to stop imposing urban planning ideas on our community against our will. I am shocked to find out the director makes $245,000 per year paid for by the businesses whose desires are ignored! These widened sidewalks are a waste of space as well as hideous, and hopefully OGB and others will deny the petition.

  • Joe says:

    The widened sidewalks are the best thing to happen to Georgetown in years and have likely saved many businesses. The foot traffic along M and WI would be a fraction of its current level had they not been installed. If they are taken out, the shoppers and their spending will go with them. People who allege that the widened sidewalks – which take back a tiny fraction of the public space that we have lost to the demands of rampant surburbanization – apparently have no interest in thriving storefront commerce or community.

  • Will says:

    I love the sidewalk widening. It makes dining outside pleasant and interesting, and opens it up to more restaurants than were able to have outside options than before. The other parts are important too so when someone stops to look in a window or tie their shoes, there is space to walk around – really, the existing sidewalks are that narrow that things like that used to cause pedestrian traffic jams.

  • DC Resident says:

    Personally, I like the wider sidewalks. It’s easier to get from shop to shop and dining outside is nice. Just had lunch outside today after a haircut and buying a shirt. There might be some loud voices but are you sure they are really the majority opinion? PS-I drove, found a parking spot and all of my stops were in walking distance. It was lovely.

  • Richard McGlothlin says:

    I am a 30+ year resident of Georgetown. The sidewalk widening has damaged the character of Georgetown and puts a serious threat to the economic well being of DC. First, they are downright ugly and rarely used. Sure a few restaurants are able to set up a few tables for private profit, and that was great to help them when they couldn’t open up their dining rooms fully…but those days are long gone. People are shopping and dining out again, and the Mayors orders on distancing in restaurants are long gone (even the mask orders are gone). Also, the loss of the parking has been detrimental to the neighborhood, both for the businesses and how the cars have just moved up into the side streets. I choose to live in a city, I get that parking will be rough, but we don’t have to shoot ourselves in the foot…only 15 or so years ago the local ANC was finding new parking by double siding parking on streets like N between 35th and Potomac. Reducing parking is heading in the wrong direction, it isn’t the heart of the pandemic when the streets were empty enough to walk down in the middle of the day. The city is back to life which bring me to the biggest issue.

    The sidewalk extensions have taken one third of the traffic lanes on vital DC corridors (notably M and Wisconsin), putting extreme stress on local transportation during morning and evening rush hours. Add in the delivery trucks that will frequently block another third of the lanes and left turning vehicles that will take up the last third and we are creating a traffic mess on routes that are evacuation paths for this city and connect to one of the few bridge crossings of the Potomac. Extending sidewalks on weekends, as was done for years, made congestion worse for no reason, but as it was only on weekends it at least didn’t threaten the ability of DC to move its workforce in and out. At some point the Federal Government is going to have its full workforce back in offices, and this city will have a traffic crisis because of inept planning. More painted bike lanes won’t fix it and the Metro system is dysfunctional at best (don’t even get me to talk about the boondoggle that is the Gondola). Don’t try to use the crisis of a global pandemic to sneak in permanent sidewalk extensions into a historic district that are out of character with that district. Don’t advance short sighted and anti commerce agendas on the tragedy of 750,000 dead Americans. Make the right choice and return Georgetown to being Georgetown, the experiment has failed.

  • Andy Beberman says:

    I have lived in Georgetown for 24 years and live on M Street.

    The sidewalk widening has no way damaged the character of Georgetown. In fact, it has added to it with people enjoying themselves outside in a safe environment. The decks are very well put together using top quality material and were very well thought out for the purpose they are being used for. They are very well used especially on the weekends, holidays, or regular nights. This is a much better use of the space than parked cars or trucks which give no character at all. People love to shop and dine outside which this provides. Parking has and always will be an issue for Georgetown so the spaces loss at the expense of pedestrians is a benefit and more in character with history since there were no cars for most of Georgetown’s history.

    I also don’t care to benefit the commuters who use Georgetown as a drive thru to their destination at the expense of the people shopping, dining, and enjoying Georgetown. The sidewalk extension is a great success and should become a permanent part of Georgetown. I also think the Whitehurst freeway should be torn down so it would open up our beautiful waterfront. That also just benefits commuters who do not live in Georgetown.

    Georgetown would return to be Georgetown by not focusing on drivers and parking but rather people and pedestrians. I believe the BID has focused on this challenge and is making these things happen. People scoff at the idea of a gondola, but I bet that would be one well used form of transportation just for the novelty of it. I don’t know if it would justify the cost, but it would definitely bring more people to Georgetown

    The BID has also done a great job at keeping Georgetown clean and promoting business. One can not deny the hard work their staff do. I see it everyday. I remember the days of trash all over the streets and overflowing trash cans, especially after a busy weekend. The staff is also very responsive to any requests and needs. The BID also provided much needed funds to employees who work in Georgetown with a stimulus that really helped during the pandemic.

    Keep up the great work Georgetown BID I for one value your service.

  • Don W. Crockett says:

    I agree completely with Richard McGlothlin for all of the reasons he sets forth. However, Georgetown must not just return to being Georgetown. It must return to being “Historic Georgetown.”

    While the “streateries” may have been necessary expedients for saving the restaurants during the pandemic, the pandemic is now over, and the “Old Georgetown Act” must once again be strictly enforced. None of the ugly concrete barriers should be permitted in the Historic District.

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