Georgetown BID Criticized for Sidewalk Expansions, High Staff Costs
By November 29, 2021 7 1122•
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?”