>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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