The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts about Georgetown

History


Modern Washingtonians have a mandate to remember black Georgetown

Most people know that Georgetown once had a large African American population that is, for the most part, not around anymore. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find that in the 1930s, Georgetown was the first neighborhood in DC to undergo a process later known as gentrification. In fact, this process—and the role historic preservation played in it—is central to the history of the neighborhood and its current state.


Photo by the author.

Among the first qualities of Georgetown cited by people extolling its charms is the historic architecture of the neighborhood. And it's true that Georgetown as a neighborhood is a virtual ark of American architecture from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. One of the reasons the building stock has survived is that Georgetown entered a long economic lull in the late 19th century. It was an age of benign neglect which spared Georgetown from dramatic demolition and expansion that a more prosperous time would have inevitably brought.

By the time interest grew again for living in Georgetown in the 1930s, the fog of nostalgia had descended. The first flickers of a wider preservationist movement (Colonial Williamsburg was formed in the 1920s to wide acclaim) sparked a drive to save Georgetown as it stood.

Displacement from Georgetown started with historic preservation

That, at least, is the sanitized version of how Georgetown became Georgetown. A more accurate picture of how the depressed neighborhood with pockets of poverty and racial diversity transformed is less rosy. Two significant Congressional acts can be credited with the change.

The first was the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934. This act created the Alley Dwelling Authority, a city agency that was granted the power to condemn and demolish cramped alley dwellings. While the act had an air of a progressive policy—one that refused to allow people to live in squalor in the nation's capital—the act also had an implicit (if not entirely explicit) goal to evict black residents specifically.

Preservation in places and time like Georgetown in the 1930s is a decidedly double-edged sword. Regardless of the intentions behind the changes (and they were almost certainly not entirely pure), when existing housing stock is deemed substandard and the tenants forced out so that the home can either be demolished or modernized, the end result almost always meant the previous tenant was not welcome back afterwards. The conditions were ameliorated, yes, and in many cases in Georgetown the architecture was preserved, but the people who lived there were forced out.

This duality is on view when you consider the story of Pomander Walk in Georgetown. This is a tiny street lined with tinier houses. While some claim that they once housed slaves, they certainly did not since they were all built in the late nineteenth century. They did, however, house African American domestics and other laborers who worked in the houses and factories of Georgetown. (It was also originally called Bell's Court, after Alexander Graham Bell who lived nearby. At some point it was renamed Pomander Walk after a 1910 play of the same name by Louis Parker).

By 1940, the city had apparently used the Alley Dwelling Act to "improve" Bell's Court. In that year the President of the Georgetown Citizens Association (a predecessor to the Citizens Association of Georgetown) wrote to the city sanitary commission:

With many thanks I wish to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th relating to Bell Court [sic]. Of course we noticed the wonderful change [cessation of wood cutting and regular seven to eight day cleanings] that had been wrought in that alley, and for the first time in many months we felt that we could drive through the alley with a feeling of security. It is a long time since it has been as clean as it is now. I am sure that some of the people who live there will contribute their full share in keeping up the sweeping.
Clearly the residents were not sawing wood daily for their own amusement. This was their livelihood. They would walk the streets of Georgetown selling firewood to the residents, cutting the wood's length to fit the resident's fireplaces. Despite it being the resident's livelihood it didn't fit in with the idealized picture of what Georgetown was supposed to be. There's no room for grime in amber.

Georgetown's adopted policies that pushed black residents out

There are obvious racial dynamics to these changes. Reacting to the increased demand for housing, property owners of homes occupied by black residents hiked the rent or put it up for sale. Redlining prevented the black residents from being able to finance a purchase. In one case retold by a descendent, a family was kicked out of their flat at 1505 26th Street because they could not find a bank to provide a mortgage when it was put up for sale. When a grocer around the corner offered to lend = the money, the seller raised the price even more and eventually sold to an out-of-town buyer (who was presumably white).

This dynamic was put into overdrive by the adoption of the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. It took the notion of preservation and improvement that had previously applied just to the alleys and applied it universally. This act is widely praised in Georgetown and serves as the heavy artillery for preservationists. You cannot even replace a window in Georgetown without the approval of the US Commission of Fine Arts, a body that spends most of its time evaluating the design of federal buildings and monuments or the nation's coinage.

The pressure exerted by this new mandate was simply too much for the remnants of Georgetown's African American community that still hung on in the 1950s. Even if they wanted to improve their home, the cost to do so consistent with historic preservation was too steep. Within a few decades the community—which was once more than 30% of the entire neighborhood and constituted the vast majority in smaller pockets like "Herring Hill" by Rock Creek—was gone.

This is the history of Georgetown

This is not a subset of the history of Georgetown. It is not an isolated facet of the history of Georgetown. It is the history of Georgetown. In order to save buildings and convert our neighborhood into the jeweled birdcage it is today, we ejected people, thousands of people. Everything we celebrate about the beauty of Georgetown today was inextricably linked with this expulsion.

This is not meant to be a rejection of Georgetown or the fruits of this preservation and improvement. But it is a call to acknowledge the dire cost that came with that, and to acknowledge that the cost was born by those least able to bear them.

It is obviously too late to undo this, but nonetheless our community does far too little to acknowledge the dreadful bargain that was struck at the dawn of modern Georgetown. In exchange for the permanent fixation of our physical form in a federal amber, we carved out parts that didn't fit the sanitized vision of a 19th century port town.

Remembrance is all we have left. And the remembrances of those who lived in Georgetown's black community when it still thrived should be preserved and cherished as much as the grand estates of Dumbarton Oaks or Evermay. And we are lucky that many of those memories have already been recorded in the 1991 publication Black Georgetown Remembered. (It's from that book that I pulled the story about the family being priced out of 105 26th Street above).

The book is being republished to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its original publication. In addition, a reunion/panel discussion will take place at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University on February 24th at 7:00 pm. Original contributors to the book, including ANC Commissioner Monica Roaché will be on hand to recollect their community's rich history. I encourage all to come.

Preserving memories is significantly more difficult than preserving structures. But the mandate is all the same.

Pedestrians


"Bulb-outs" could make crossing the street safer at key trouble spots

People on foot could get a little more space at the corners of 14th and U NW, Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, and M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Those are a few of the concepts in a new analysis of how to make DC's most dangerous intersections safer.


Image from NACTO.

Transportation officials, local community and business members, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and councilmember Mary Cheh toured five of the highest-crash intersections in August and September. A new report from DDOT recommends ways to make each safer.

The intersections were: Columbus Circle in front of Union Station, New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, 14th and U NW, Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, and Wisconsin and M in Georgetown. Between them, three people died and 12 had "disabling injuries" since 2012, a total DC is committed to reducing to zero.

The report is full of interesting statistics on crashes and small fixes for people walking, biking, and driving. One piece of note is are a few spots where the study team is proposing temporarily or permanently creating some more space for people on foot, such as "bulb-outs" at corners which add to the sidewalk space and shorten crossing distance.

At 14th and U, plans are already underway to rebuild that intersection as part of a 14th Street streetscape project expected to start this fall. That design includes bulb-outs at the corners:

On Benning Road, DDOT will look into adding a pedestrian refuge using flexible posts for the spot where people walking and biking get onto the bridge sidewalk to go over the railroad tracks (and later the river).

The always-thorny corner of M and Wisconsin has large numbers of people waiting on the narrow sidewalks to cross the street (and then short times to cross). The report suggests studying possible bulb-outs for three of the corners to add more space for people to wait.

For New York Avenue and Bladensburg and Columbus Circle, the report doesn't recommend any changes of the same scale, but notes that there are sidewalks and pedestrian islands on New York Avenue that are too narrow and which should be widened, as well as are some missing crosswalks on Columbus Circle.

What else do you notice in the report?

Preservation


An art deco industrial building in Georgetown could have a new use

Developers want to build a contemporary mid-rise residential tower on a prime site in Georgetown, but it'd mean tearing down a distinctive old heating plant. There might be ways to reuse the old building and build something new as well.


The West Heating Plant looking south from the C&O Canal. All images by the authors unless noted.

The West Heating Plant, which abuts Rock Creek Park on the edge of Georgetown, was built by the Federal government to provide steam heating for federal buildings in the District. Designed during World War II by architect William Dewey Foster, it opened in 1948 as one of the few examples of industrial art deco-to-moderne architecture in the District; the other is the Central Heating Plant on 13th Street SW.

The six-story structure now stands idle, having been decommissioned in 2003.

A team led by local developer Richard Levy purchased the plant from the Government Services Administration (GSA) in 2013 with plans to demolish part of the building for up to 80 luxury Four Seasons residences and use the former coal yard for a new park.

Unfortunately, preservation officials encouraged Levy's team of notable architects - British architect David Adjaye and OLIN landscape architects - to be creative with the site without preserving the building. Levy understandably leapt at the opportunity.

In a presentation to the Citizens Association of Georgetown in December, Levy outlined plans to tear down the West Heating Plant entirely. His new plan includes a 10-story tower made of blue travertine and bronze on the site of the plant, housing 60 to 70 luxury residences and the adjacent park.

The West Heating Plant is worth preserving

DC has few industrial buildings and even fewer that are architecturally significant. The West Heating Plant, despite its decaying state, is significant as both a notable industrial edifice and one of the few examples of moderne architecture in the city.

Eight massive vertical windows stretching nearly the building's entire height dominate its north and south faces. A similar vertical portico dominates the 29th Street façade.


The entrance portico is an impressive vertical dominating the building's 29th Street facade.

The West Heating Plant stands out on the Georgetown skyline as one approaches from the south or east, reminiscent of the neighborhood's industrial past. Other remnants of this include the lofts in converted warehouses along the canal and the Capital Crescent Trail that was on the former Georgetown Branch railroad line.


The West Heating Plant seen from Rock Creek Parkway.

The building is a worthy reminder of Georgetown's history, and an impressive example of civic architecture.

Converting the plant to residences would be difficult

With or without Levy's plan to demolish the West Heating Plant, it was never really feasible to convert the existing building into residences. Floors are only located on its 29th Street side, and shoring up the columns that run up and down the building would be costly due to years of corrosion.

In addition, at 109 feet wide, the building is deeper than is preferable to get good light throughout an apartment. The design team attempted to fix this in their earlier partial-demolition proposal by adding big shafts to the center of the structure to bring in light.

To fill the building with apartments or offices, the developers would also have to add a lot of windows. This would be problematic as the brick is only loosely attached to the steel frame. Adding windows would require painstaking care and, even then, might deface the monumental qualities that give the building interest.

In other words, it is a tough sell for a residential or commercial conversion even before he exorbitant cost of cleaning up the asbestos, PCBs, and other toxins scattered throughout the site.

Zoning and economics drove Levy's demolition proposal

The original appeal for developers was that the West Heating Plant sits on just a fifth of the lot. When the GSA sold the facility, it anticipated the site would receive a waterfront zone district, W-2, allowing for 362,000 square feet of development up to 60 feet high, in its environmental assessment.


The West Heating Plant only sits on about a fifth of the lot. Image by Google Maps.

However, adaptively reusing the plant would offer only up to 143,600 square feet of space. While the building is tall, it only has six floors with high ceilings—13 feet on most floors and 22 feet on the first—that allows for less density than the height suggests.

To address this disconnect, the GSA imagined that a developer would build a second flat and fat structure on the coal yard south of the heating plant that would peep over the Whitehurst Freeway viaduct. Since the conversion would ruin the dramatic interior spaces and significantly alter the monolithic exterior, it would have been a pretty hollow deal for developers and preservation interests alike.


The West Heating Plant seen from the Whitehurst highway viaduct.

Levy's demolition plan is a compromise to the competing expectations of the developers and neighbors: there's no second building and the new 10 stories of apartment fit into the existing massing. That's more floors than with an adaptive reuse but less density and more open space than the GSA's scenario. The height and the park secure the great views that high-end buyers will pay extra for and the park has quieted a lot of neighborhood concerns.

It is a clever solution but it is not the only one. There are options that preserve the historic plant and also get a distinctive new apartment building.

The West Heating Plant could be a new public space

If height is not really an issue, Levy could build a new 10-story building in the coal yard and reuse the actual plant for something much more creative.

There are ways to reuse the West Heating Plant that work in big messy spaces. Contemporary art institutions, like the Tate Modern in London, are a good example, especially if the first floor is open and free to the public, effectively making it an extension of the streetscape.


The Tate Modern gallery is located in the former Bankside Power Station in London. Image by Alquiler de Coches on Flickr.

The Tate Modern has been a staple of the London tourist circuit since its turbine hall hosted a series of blockbuster exhibitions shortly after it opened. This has prompted demands for contemporary art museums elsewhere with large spaces that can handle rough treatment, like the Dia:Beacon near New York City.


The turbine hall at the Tate Modern. Image by Jennifer Morrow on Flickr.

The West Heating Plant's boiler room is an ideal candidate for such a space, something the Post recommended in 2012. While only about a third the size of the Tate's 36,500 square foot turbine room, it is much bigger than the District's last proposed contemporary art museum in the Franklin School. If two floors of the plant were cleared out, Adolf Cluss's landmark school would fit comfortably in the boiler room.

The plant could also be used as a home for one of DC's excellent theaters. A big box with three stories for flies could make the cornerstone of a spectacular alternative theater venue. The industrial patina, few windows and big spaces of the old plant again could be more of an asset than a drawback.

Realistically, to keep the old and add the new, any reuse of the site would have to assume a new building on the coal yard. This would likely mean more height and density on the site in order to allow development of as much of the 362,000 square feet allowed. It would also mean no new large park.

Dropping the park from the Levy's proposal may not be a bad thing. The Georgetown Waterfront Park, just a few blocks from heating plant, was completed just five years ago and both Rock Creek Park and the C&O canal run along the site.

To offset the loss of the park, and curry neighborhood support for a higher and denser project, the boiler room of the new West Heating Plant art space could be part of a new public space with new entrances connecting it to both Rock Creek and the canal. Shops facing the canal could be added along the ground floor making it a popular neighborhood destination.

Compromises will undoubtedly be necessary to get the developer to support preserving the plant and the neighborhood to support more density on the site. But it would be well worth it.

A West Heating Plant site with both an extension of the urban fabric plus new public arts and green space at the intersection of two of DC's most popular parks might be a altogether a better deal for Georgetown and the District.

Public Spaces


It's nearly impossible to get into one of DC's national parks by foot or bike

The C&O Canal National Historic Park, which both the Capital Crescent Trail and the C&O Canal towpath run through, is very easy to get to by car but difficult to access on foot or bike.


Canal Road and the Clara Barton Parkway form a barrier to pedestrian and cyclist access to the C&O Canal National Historic Park. Red dots represent existing crossing points, green dots are existing parking lots, and blue dots are two places where people have suggested improvements. Base image from Google Maps.

The park runs along DC's southwest border, with the trail and towpath being side by side between Georgetown and Arizona Avenue. There, they diverge, with the trail going to Bethesda and the towpath to Great Falls (and all the way to Cumberland, Maryland).

Between Georgetown and Bethesda, there's no safe way for people of all abilities to walk or bike to the park. The only options are to climb down a dirt trail, carry your bike, or take your life in your hands with traffic—or do all three.

If you want to visit the park but aren't willing or able to scramble, ramble, or gamble, your choices are to go down to Georgetown or up to Bethesda, or get in a car and go to one of the automotive access points.

The park is very accommodating of cars

The car route, if you have one, is extremely easy. The Crescent Trail website lists ten public parking areas between Bethesda and Georgetown—a distance of ten miles!

These are all dedicated parking lots, not on-street parking. "Whenever possible, avoid using neighborhood residential streets for parking, as this becomes an imposition on residents when substantial numbers of trail users park there," the website even notes.

Getting to the towpath part of the park by car is also very easy. In DC alone, there are two large parking lots at Fletcher's Boathouse, another parking lot at Chain Bridge, and another just inside the DC line at Little Falls. If you keep going there are parking lots every mile or so all the way out to Great Falls, where there is a huge parking lot. In total, there are 15 parking lots along the towpath within its first sixteen miles north of Georgetown!

Access to the park is generally excellent in Maryland. The Clara Barton Parkway forms a barrier to access between the Maryland line and Great Falls, but there are numerous pedestrian bridges, crosswalks and other crossings. It's even not that hard to access the park from Virginia: You have to cross the Potomac River, but there are pedestrian and bike facilities on both the Key Bridge and Chain Bridge.

But for the DC section of the towpath, Canal Road is a formidable barrier and there are no formal crossings. Plus there's high-speed traffic.

Better access points could be on the way

This might be changing, however. In November, DDOT installed a traffic signal at Canal and Reservoir Road. The signal isn't on yet, but when operational it will have a "beg button" that lets people on foot and riding bikes cross.


The intersection of Canal and Reservoir. Base image from Google.

But even with the light, access will be via Reservoir Road, which is narrow and steep, and which lots of cars use to travel at high speeds. Reservoir has an extremely narrow sidewalk on one side, and telephone poles in the sidewalk make it almost impassable in spots.


Installed but not activated lights at Reservoir Road. Photo by the author.

Once across Canal, access to the park itself is via an even narrower part of Reservoir Road, with no sidewalk. Even with the traffic light, the new access point won't work for everyone until the sidewalk is fixed.

DDOT's long-range MoveDC plan calls for an additional access point where the Capital Crescent Trail crosses Arizona Avenue, with a sidewalk down Arizona from MacArthur Boulevard. The National Park Service has also suggested the idea of a trailhead here.


The Arizona Avenue intersection. Base image from Google.

The Palisades Citizens Association recently endorsed this path, calling on DDOT to make the access point a priority. But it's actually been on DDOT planning documents for over a decade, and there aren't any immediate plans for action.

Without some real access points, enjoying the beauty of the C&O Canal in DC will only be for people who can drive there.

Parking


Georgetown is swapping parking spaces for sidewalks, which people will enjoy

Georgetown will temporarily widen some of its sidewalks this weekend, which is parents weekend for Georgetown, American, and George Washington Universities. It's a different way to use space that's typically set aside for curbside parking, and it's seen a lot of prior success.

Georgetown BID will widen the sidewalks along M Street NW, between Wisconsin and 33rd, on October 17th and 18th. That area is where Georgetown's foot traffic is most concentrated and its sidewalks are narrowest, typically between six and eight feet wide with a few pinch points that are four feet wide.

To date, Georgetown BID has tried temporary sidewalk widening on nearly every block of M Street in Georgetown. One of the most successful go-rounds was during the Cherry Blossom Festival in mid-April, where it did so along M Street between 29th and 31st Streets. That came on the heels of success with wider sidewalks during last October's Georgetown University's Family Weekend, another event that attracts a lot of people on foot.


M Street during April's sidewalk widening. Image from Georgetown BID, base image from Google Maps.

Each time it widened Georgetown's sidewalks, the BID "borrowed" about 50 parking spots from along M Street and used the space to add onto existing sidewalks. The change lasted for two days, with the work happening before and after the hours that see peak business and foot traffic to minimize traffic disruptions. The BID also made sure to accommodate local businesses that still needed the space for loading and unloading.

Finally, to ensure there was no net loss of parking spaces, nearby garages worked with the BID and offered lower rates than normal. For the temporary sidewalk widening happening this weekend, drivers can get $5 all-day parking at the PMI garage (3307 M St. NW) Saturday and Sunday, and the garage at Georgetown Park (1080 Wisconsin Avenue, NW) will offer $10 all-day parking (online only!).

The experiments have been illustrative, showing that while the sidewalks were still busy during much of the day, the existing sidewalks were capable of handling the volume of people on foot. Between Wisconsin and 33rd Street, however, pedestrians on M Street frequently push the limit of sidewalk capacity.

Pictures from Cherry Blossom weekend

Georgetown BID employees took a number of photos at the ground level when they widened the sidewalks for the Cherry Blossom festival:


People walking. Image from Georgetown BID.


Georgetown BID.

They even got some from above:


Georgetown BID.

To the BID's surprise, a satellite collecting new images for Google Maps and Google Earth captured the whole thing from the sky:


The wider M Street sidewalk in its entirety, from 31st Street to 29th Street. Image from Google Maps.

The picture was most likely taken on Saturday morning at about 9 AM based on the shadows. Nobody expected to be able to see the entirety of the experiment in one shot.

Georgetown BID hopes to use this setup on many more weekends going forward, generally whenever there is good weather between April and November. If you're able to walk through this weekend, the BID is eager for feedback.

Places


This map shows some information about Georgetown. We don't know what it is. Do you know?

This heat map of DC surfaced on Twitter on Tuesday, but not because people thought it had interesting information. It was actually just the opposite: nobody was sure what the map is trying to show. Any ideas?

The map of Georgetown and Burlieth is on DDOT's Vision Zero website, but not to show anything. Rather, it's just below a heading that says "Data" which talks about how DDOT will collect data. In other words, it's being used as an abstract illustration about data, not actual data.

Eli Glazier, a local urban planner, was the first to tweet about the map. A few curious parties proceeded to theorize about what the map is actually... mapping.

Do you know? Take a guess of your own in the comments!

Education


Will Georgetown's campus plan collapse the area's rental market?

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved Georgetown's latest campus plan. A central part of the plan is that the school committed to providing 385 new on-campus beds by the fall of 2015, with the long term goal of housing 90% of its undergrads on campus by 2025. With that first deadline rapidly approaching, is the rental market already feeling the pinch of reduced demand? A lot of residents I've talked to have concluded as much, and some anecdata supports that.


Image from Rob Pongsajapan on Flickr.

Recently, people have noticed homes still available for rent that would usually be already rented for the fall. And one particularly prominent house that has been rented for years (and is awfully shabby for it) is not only vacant but now for sale. It's the home at 3348 Prospect. This large home can be yours for $3 million.

One argument I've made to those trying to force Georgetown to house more students on campus is that the rental housing would simply be filled by non-students, primarily 20-somethings, who can be just as loud and annoying as college students (I certainly was). But the Prospect Street house may point to a flaw in that argument. According to the listing, the house rents out nine "units" for a total rent of $18,000 a month. That wasn't a typo.


Georgetown's Prospect House. Image by James Emery on Flickr.

It's unclear how many bedrooms the house has (the listing could be read to mean nine, but also up to twelve), but it's very unlikely that anyone other than a Georgetown student would be willing to pay that much to share that building with so many people. And with so many new condos all over the city much closer to more popular neighborhoods, maybe there really aren't that many 20-somethings that want to move to Georgetown period, let alone at the usurious rates that undergrads pay.

And it seems that a collapse in demand is about the only thing that would explain why someone would want to sell a property producing $155,000 a year net profit. The listing claims the $3 million price was arrived at to achieve a 5% capitalization rate. This would be a decent cap rate, but only if it's actually true. And maybe the fact the owner is selling suggests that he or she doesn't think it is.

A version of this post originally ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Transit


Yes, it's worth looking into a gondola in DC

Is building a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn feasible? There's money in DC's budget for next year to look into the answer, and there are enough practical reasons to think a gondola might work to make it worth looking into.

The study, proposed by the Georgetown Business Improvement District to determine whether building an aerial gondola from the Rosslyn Metro stop to M Street in Georgetown, would cost $35,000. When considered as part of the $13 billion budget, which the DC Council adopted this week, the project and its impact are relatively tiny.

The gondola proposal has generated biting contempt from several quarters, but the criticism is misplaced. Given the possible benefits, we should absolutely study the possibility of constructing an aerial gondola between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Where the gondola idea came from

As documented by the Post, the gondola idea is the brainchild of the Georgetown BID's CEO Joe Sternlieb. After seeing an aerial gondola in action in Portland, Oregon, Sternlieb became entranced with the idea of bringing this idea to Washington.

After taking charge at the BID, Sternlieb was quickly able to persuade all the relevant stakeholders that the idea was worth looking into. Two years ago, it took the form of a particularly eye-catching action item in the Georgetown 2028 long-term planning study, which the BID produced with significant community input. Funding the study is a significant step towards completing that action item.

The BID has raised $130,000 from donors and needs an additional $35,000 each from DC and Arlington to fund the anticipated $200,000 study. While Arlington has not officially approved its contribution, a county spokesperson stated that it was working towards it. (Full disclosure: I served on the steering committee of the Georgetown 2028 study).

Here's why some people hate the idea

From the beginning, the gondola proposal has attracted scorn from some transit advocates. The criticism essentially boils down to the following points:

  • It's too expensive, and the transit service it provides wouldn't be enough to justify the cost.
  • It's just a distraction from other less attention-grabbing transit projects, which would lose some funding to the gondola.
  • The technology itself (and thus the project too) is nothing but "gadgetbahn," or new technology being sold as an improvement over what we currently have without actually offering any improvements.
In the abstract, the first two complaints are perfectly reasonable. We have to consider the costs and benefits of any new transit project, and an analysis of the gondola would need to account for there being limited funds for transit.

The third point, however, is not entirely fair. By being able to easily traverse otherwise treacherous inclines, gondolas clearly provide transit capabilities that no other technology can. It only becomes "gadgetbahn" when it's being applied in the wrong situation.

Criticisms withstanding, the gondola is worth studying

Ultimately, each of these criticisms may be justified. But we won't know that for certain without the study.

Of course, you could apply that statement to any cockamamie plan. "How could we possibly know a jet pack share wouldn't work without studying it," skeptics might ask with muse. But there are enough reasons to believe a gondola could actually be worth it to justify a study to answer the question.

Here are those reasons:

  • Gondolas are, relatively speaking, cheap and quick to build. Sternlieb very much views this mostly as a stop gap measure until Metrorail can be built to Georgetown. Rather than do nothing for 20-30 years as we wait for Metro, we could have this up and running in just a few years.
  • A gondola would make for a quick ride from Georgetown to the Metro, and it'd be entertaining to boot.
  • A gondola would eliminate the need for Georgetown University to run the GUTS bus between the campus and Rosslyn. This route serves over 700,000 riders a year, and the people who use it would would form the core of the gondola's ridership. That number would likely climb, though, as many students, workers and visitors would start using the route out of convenience. Commuters to and from Georgetown would also likely add significant ridership to the line. And tourists, of course, would likely flock to it.
  • Yes, a bus-only lane from Rosslyn to Georgetown and then to Georgetown University would be cheaper and possibly as successful. But creating bus-only lanes through the heart of Rosslyn, across Key Bridge and down Canal Road is politically infeasible. DC cannot marshall the will power to construct successful bus lanes in corridors where doing so is a no-brainer. What chance is there that it could construct a successful multi-jurisdictional bus lane where the case is not as clear cut?
  • Without bus lanes and absent a new subway line, there really isn't any other technology that can as easily connect people from Rosslyn to Georgetown and the university as a gondola would. Again, this is not proposed as a replacement of Metro, just a "temporary" measure as we wait several decades for Metro to be expanded.
  • A gondola would hold the potential to become a tourist destination in and of itself.
  • Unlike other alternatives, a gondola would likely attract funding support from wider sources, like Virginia, Georgetown University, and the BID itself.
Will these arguments convince everyone? Probably not. But they are strong enough to justify a closer look at what it'd take to build a gondola.

The study now will almost certainly move forward. It's possible that the results will make it clear that a gondola isn't worth it, in which case Sternlieb and the BID would drop it and move on. But it's also possible it will show a gondola to be feasible, and at that point, we could have a fully-informed discussion to address each of the critics' points.

Roll your eyes if you must, but personally, I trust Sternlieb. As the man that was largely responsible for the creation of the successful Circulator bus system, he's earned the right to push the boundaries a bit.

A version of this post ran on The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC