DANIEL SMITH/THE HOYA Georgetown Business Improvement District discussed the neighborhood’s shift from restaurants to chain retailers at its November meeting.
DANIEL SMITH/THE HOYA
Georgetown Business Improvement District discussed the neighborhood’s shift from restaurants to chain retailers at its November meeting.

Restaurants have historically colored the history of the Georgetown neighborhood: John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie in Martin’s Tavern, and Barack took Michelle out for a birthday dinner at Café Milano. However, the recent rise of retail stores over the last decade has forced Georgetown’s traditional restaurant scene to take a back seat to the neighborhood’s new retail presence.

At least that was the story told by Joe Sternlieb, chief executive officer of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and Anthony Lanier, founder of real estate development company EastBanc, in a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown at their monthly meeting Nov. 5.

Bars and restaurants, which used to populate the area, have increasingly been forced to sacrifice space for the newer storefronts. This year alone saw the closures of two bars: Modern on M Street and Chadwicks on K Street. Furthermore, Mr. Smith’s moved from M Street to K Street in September due to rising rent costs.

“My perception is that there’s more apparel and a lot more home furnishings over the last 10 years than there was in 2004. There’s been a fair amount of displacement for restaurants and pubs that have been around for a long time. Some have been replaced by newer restaurants and others have been replaced by apparel,” Sternlieb told The Hoya.

With the development of high-quality dining as a result of city-wide gentrification, Sternlieb noted that the demand for Georgetown restaurants from city residents had fallen, though the neighborhood still boasts comparatively more old restaurants than other regions of the District.

“With the emergence of more high-quality dining destinations in neighborhoods around the city … a larger percentage of the overall sales and business in Georgetown will be generated by folks from the suburbs and tourists and will be a little less dependent on city residents,” Sternlieb said. “We’ve got more old restaurants in Georgetown probably than in any other part of the city despite the fact that we’ve lost a few.”

Sternlieb also attributed the decline in restaurants in Georgetown to the relatively low quantity of alcohol licenses available in the neighborhood. While 14 percent of Georgetown restaurants possess liquor licenses, Adams Morgan, for example, boasts a rate of 60 percent.

This can primarily be attributed to the Georgetown’s alcohol moratorium, in place since 1989, which limits the number of alcohol licenses that are permitted in the Georgetown area. Restrictions within the Georgetown ABC License Moratorium Zone, which extends about 1,800 feet in all direction from the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and N Street, dictate that no tavern or nightclub in Georgetown may be issued a new retailer’s license class C or D, which permits establishments to sell and serve beer, wine, and/or spirits. No more than 68 of these licenses may be issued to restaurants within the moratorium.

As the bars have disappeared, so has open space, prompting Lanier to question the future of the neighborhood.

“We’ve seen a lot of the traditional bars in Georgetown get depleted and we’re going to work on replacing them with something that is more fitting to Georgetown going forward. Slowly but surely all remaining pieces of open land in Georgetown have vanished with the exception of two that are on their way out,” Lanier said.

Acknowledging this flight of restaurants from the neighborhood, Lanier emphasized the need to bring food back into the landscape to keep Georgetown vibrant, pointing to the rise of specialty restaurants in the region and the relative dearth of fast food options.

“Now we need to replace restaurants, which are an important component of a vibrant retail environment, with food outlets that fit the current demand better and it certainly has been demonstrated that it’s not fast food,” he said. “I think that the restaurant side has changed to more specialty restaurants. It’s not pastry shops anymore, it’s cupcakes.”

The push is complicated by the rising rents throughout the Georgetown neighborhood that have made it difficult for small businesses to afford space. As a result, even the retailers flooding the Georgetown area have primarily been national chains, including Forever 21, Rent the Runway, DSW and Alice + Olivia.

“The rents have gone up all over the city including in Georgetown and so the types of businesses that can afford those higher rents are driving the change in the retail landscape very visibly in Georgetown,” Sternlieb said. “The trend has been towards more expensive rents on M Street with more national brands and national credit tenants flocking to M Street. That’s been the most noticeable change in the last 10 to 15 years.”

With reduced space and increased rent, storefronts, previously clustered exclusively on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, are now turning to the side streets in the neighborhood.

“I think you’re going to see a proliferation of retail into the side streets and alleys going forward, which is going to be really exciting for the look and feel of Georgetown,” Lanier said. “One of them is the development of the parking lots in front of Café Milano. That is an interesting development because it will bring retail off M Street onto Prospect Street.”

The state of flux of the storefronts and restaurants has not affected the vibrancy of the neighborhood. Lanier attributed the vitality to the nearby student population and their entrepreneurship.

“One of the exciting components that influences Georgetown is not simply the residents, but is arguably the amount of students that embrace Georgetown. … The exciting thing about these two universities is that we have 30,000 people that are in some form or shape innovators because they are young; they are looking at things differently than the existing population and that brings something to Georgetown that makes it always current,” Lanier said.

Unlike other neighborhoods in the District, Georgetown is not projected to add a substantial amount of residential units, putting the impetus on the existing population to jump-start the neighborhood’s development.

“[Students] are not willing to buy into yesterday’s values, they are bringing tomorrow’s values and I think Georgetown has to learn how to adapt to that,” Lanier said. “You have 30,000 people who are thinking about tomorrow who are going to influence our shops, our restaurants, our traffic, our eating habits and so on.”

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