>Jumping on the Georgetown Park Bandwagon

>One of the most influential bloggers in Georgetown is journalist Carol Joynt, host of the Q&A Cafe television interview programme, and regular columnist for the always-amusing cafe society site New York Social Diary. I rarely agree with Mrs. Joynt’s opinions on socio-political issues, as we occupy very different ends of the spectrum. However, I read her blog every day because she is often the first on the scene with news of significant import to her neighbors.

Last evening Mrs. Joynt posted a piece regarding the very sorry state of Georgetown Park, or more accurately, the enclosed shopping mall at the center of the Georgetown Park complex, which occupies a significant piece of land in the heart of the village. She visited the mall yesterday afternoon, took photographs of its emptiness, and wondered why it continues to fail to live up to its potential. This morning Topher Matthews at the redoubtable Georgetown Metropolitan picked up on her piece, as I imagine will other commentators of significantly less prominence than he (such as myself.) Like Mrs. Joynt and Mr. Matthews, I have written about Georgetown Park before, and decried its present condition. Since there is nothing like a good scrum to draw public attention to an issue, so The Courtier has decided to join in.

Architecturally speaking, the Shops at Georgetown Park, as the mall is formally known, has never worked as a building. While blessed with an enormous quantity of square footage in which to work, it is a structure which failed to make the best use of its available space. It is an unhappy marriage of historic architectural remnants, decorative elements both fine and poor, and 1980′s asymmetrical blight, being neither fully functional nor fully capricious, neither modern nor historic. It has failed for many of the same reasons the Post Office Pavilion, about which I wrote recently, has failed: irrational use of a formerly rational space.

A successful shopping arcade, from an historical perspective is usually just such a rational, open space. It allows the visitor entering from one end to see an exit on the other end. If there are side passages, they clearly and easily lead back to main ones, without seeming to lead to dark, hidden corners where someone might be lurking.

In trying to marry old and new elements, Georgetown Park fails as a building because too much of it seems to meander, rather than proceed in a rectilinear fashion. If the Victorians had built a three-story shopping mall in Georgetown, you can bet that the central, covered space would have been a long, skylight-covered rectangle, with broad vistas from one end to the other, rather than truncated passageways and odd angles. The arcade did not need to be re-invented for Georgetown Park in order for it to succeed: rather, it needed to be copied.

This brings up an important point, because the idea of the covered shopping arcade is not, though many Americans may think so, a creation of this country’s post-war boom and the wider availability of the automobile. Anyone who has spent time in London, for example, will be very familiar with the beautiful old shopping arcades in the heart of Mayfair and St. James, such as the Regency-era Burlington Arcade (built in 1819), the High Victorian style Royal Arcade (built in 1879), and the Edwardian design of the Piccadilly Arcade (built in 1909). Similar structures exist in a number of European cities, from Milan to Barcelona to Bruxelles.

The attempt to create something similar in Georgetown, the most important historic district in the Nation’s Capital, was a laudable one, but that effort has clearly failed. Why? I would argue that the problem is not purely an architectural one, though I do believe that is part of it. Moreover, there is no question that the very complicated lawsuit over the building between its original owners and Georgetown’s unofficial mayor Anthony Lanier for a considerable length of time had a significant impact on the state of the place.

Yet more importantly there has been a failure to look around and see that if no one is interested in purchasing your product, perhaps it is time to reconsider the asking price. As Mrs. Joynt points out in her piece, if rents inside the mall are too high, viable tenants are not going to come calling. Why put your business inside and underground, when you can find street frontage at a lower price? There must be an incentive to come inside, because of amenities such as better security, or higher average income of potential customers, or some sort of intangible chic stamp of approval.

I would add to that observation by saying that deferred maintenance is also having an impact. One does not need to be a contractor or an armchair architectural critic to stroll through the empty mall and see cracked or missing tiles, peeling paint, dead lightbulbs, decorative and drinking fountains which are not working, and so on. Putting aside for the moment the fact that most of the shops on the middle and lower levels in particular rarely if ever seem to have customers, if the impression one gets is of a place on its last legs – the old incarnation of the Shops at National Place comes to mind – then people will be turned away by a feeling of unease.

Georgetown Park could be a major asset to both the community and to the city, serving as it once did to attract a mix of both major retailers and interesting local businesses, provide space for public or private events, and be a source of pride for both the owners and their customers, who will want to bring visitors there to show the place off. I can remember well, back in the early 90′s, when some evenings parts of Georgetown Park would be closed off to the public in order to host events such as receptions or private parties. It has been a long time, I am sure, since that type of event – a clear mark of esteem for the building – took place on any regular basis.

Burlington Arcade in Mayfair
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>Georgetown Park On the Block

>Some interesting news from Georgetown this morning: after years of lawsuits and fighting, it appears that Georgetown Park is headed to the auction block next month in a foreclosure sale. The Washington Post is reporting that Western Development Corporation, whose developer Herbert Miller originally built the mall and re-purchased it in 2006, has defaulted on a $70 million dollar loan from a real estate lender now in bankruptcy protection. Mr. Miller and fellow Georgetown real estate mogul Anthony Lanier, the head of rival EastBanc Corporation, have been locked in a litigation battle for years over ownership of the property, for reasons too complex to describe in a brief blog post.

Georgetown Park, for those who have not seen it, is an enormous, 300,000 square foot mixed retail and residential complex in the heart of the village. The earliest parts of the structure date from the 1830′s, when it was used as a tobacco storehouse, during the period when Georgetown was an important port. The village connected the Potomac, which was not passable to large ships beyond the Georgetown Channel, to the interior of the country via the C&O Canal. Over the years the structures on the site served various purposes, as new additions were made, but as Georgetown’s economy died off due to the development of rail and the silting up of Georgetown Harbor, much of the area fell into disrepair.

In the 1970′s an ambitious plan to re-develop the site began, and in 1981 the shopping mall portion of Georgetown Park opened. In keeping with the historical importance of the structures on the site, as well as the tone of the neighborhood, the mall was designed in a Victorian revival style, with wood parquet and marble tiled floors, brick architectural features, painted and gilded wrought iron, and stone fountains. The design was, in effect, a representation of an idealized, glass-enclosed Victorian Georgetown.

Unfortunately, pretty as it is, the design never worked entirely well. Personally, I love the space, but I can see how the average consumer, not used to a more urban indoor mall experience, might be taken aback from the distinctions to be drawn between a European shopping arcade and the standard American boxy shopping mall. At Georgetown Park dark hallways are lined with storefronts which in places seem to meander down winding paths to dead ends. Bathrooms are discreetly placed and for some, difficult to locate. For the shopkeepers, the square footage inside the mall was full of admittedly awkward angles, and there are no large anchor stores to provide a regular stream of customers into the space. Moreover, since two-thirds of the mall lies below street level, few of the shops had any frontage on M Street which, despite the best efforts of the mall’s various owners over the years, resulted in many tourists and visitors not even realizing that there was an enormous indoor shopping complex behind and connected to these retailers.

Compiling the problem is the fact that the American mindset toward urban development and retail has changed. Shopping malls are considered a necessary evil of suburbia now, and those whom one might call the more aspirational of American shoppers want to do that shopping in cities when possible. This has resulted in the re-birth of the American city center as both a retail and a residential commodity. In this regard the city of Washington in particular is almost unrecognizable today from what it once was, back in the 1980′s and 90′s.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991, the mall contained a number of national chain stores, and though there were some national chains on Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, the two principal shopping thoroughfares in the village, the majority of retailers on these two streets were local small-scale chains, or Mom-and-Pop businesses. Those who are a bit older will remember with fondness interesting shops like The French Market, Little Caledonia, and Britches; theatres like The Key and The Biograph; and so on. One can get a sense of what Georgetown was like at one time, albeit on a smaller but more posh scale, by wandering the areas around King Street in Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown’s Georgian cousin just down the Potomac.

Nowadays most of the twin shopping streets in Georgetown are lined with shops which can be found in any major city. Though they are great to have in the neighborhood, they have also led to the loss of some of the character of the village, ironically making our high streets look like a shopping mall turned inside out – the reverse of what Georgetown Park attempted to do. Shops which once had been part of the mall, like Ralph Lauren, White House/Black Market, and Abercrombie & Fitch have moved out of the mall and onto Wisconsin and M. Some of these vacancies were replaced with other chains, but much of the retail space remained empty, or became home to temporary businesses or shops which do not carry items most people would want.

What will come of this auction sale it is too early to tell, and I will certainly not prognosticate. Perhaps Mr. Miller will be able to purchase the property, or perhaps Mr. Lanier will do so. Or perhaps there is a third party interested in wading in to the fight over this space. Regardless of the outcome, this extremely important piece of real estate is very much in need of attention from its new owner, whomever that might be, and I for one am hoping that the end result will be a positive one for the village.