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Posts by Topher Mathews

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.  


The story behind Georgetown's street grid

If there is one thing that people love the most about Georgetown, it's the small blocks filled with 18th and 19th century homes. But how exactly did it come to be that way?

Much of the land that would eventually become Georgetown was originally granted to a Scotsman named Ninian Beall in 1703. Beall named this 705 acre plot of land the Rock of Dumbarton in a reference to his native country.

The location of the land that would become Georgetown became an important aspect to the town's early development. Located as it is just south of Little Falls, this land is the farthest north that ocean-bound ships could reach on the Potomac. As such, it was a natural location for a tobacco port. Landowner George Gordon constructed a tobacco inspection station along the Potomac shore and soon a thriving commercial port developed.

In 1751, merchants of this new tobacco port successfully lobbied the Maryland colonial legislature to authorize the creation of a new town. The men chosen as commissioners of this new town approached George Gordon and George Beall (son of Ninian) to purchase their land. The Georges were not interested in selling their land and sued the commissioners for condemning their land. A jury full of Bealls and Magruders (ancestors of the Magruders grocery store) awarded the Georges 280 pounds.

Whether the decision to name it Georgetown was in honor of these two gentlemen, or the reigning monarch, King George II, is a fact lost to time.

The commissioners then had the land surveyed and broken up into 80 lots. Gordon and Beall were given the privilege of first selecting two lots each. Gordon chose his first. Beall refused to recognize the legitimacy of the commissioners and decline to choose his lots, at least until faced with the possibility of receiving nothing, at which point he chose two lots under extreme protest.

As you can see below, the blocks that were first laid out for the town only encompasses a few of the central blocks of modern Georgetown:

The layout of Georgetown was a typical modest colonial town. The 80 lots were separated by only two streets and two narrow lanes. In the 1780s, several additions were annexed to the town. As you can see from this map of 18th century Georgetown, the street grid that still exists was already layed out, despite the fact that there were not many buildings off of Bridge St./Falls St. or High St. (what are now M St. and Wisconsin Ave. respectively):

While the physical structures hadn't filled in the street grid by the 1790s, Pierre L'Enfant nonetheless concluded that Georgetown was too developed with its own town plan to be incorporated into his Baroque plan for the city of Washington.

This design independence has survived to the present day as Georgetown lacks the circles and radials of the rest of downtown Washington. What didn't survive was the separate street naming scheme. With the exception of a few streets, Georgetown's streets were renamed to be consistent with the Washington street naming scheme when it was merged with Washington city in 1872.

Much of this information comes from the Chronicles of Georgetown.

This post originally ran back in 2010, and was crossposted at the Georgetown Metropolitan. A recent visit to Georgetown inspired our staff editor to dig it back up!


Housing atop Georgetown's Safeway would have strengthened the neighborhood

Retail is struggling in upper Georgetown, and a big reason is because not all that many people live there. Safeway could have added housing when it redesigned its Wisconsin Avenue store, but says it didn't because doing so would have delayed building. That was a lost opportunity.

The Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Image from Google Maps.

Affectionately called the "Social Safeway" for its fame as a place for singles to meet, the Georgetown Safeway got a full makeover in 2010. The old version was a traditional grocery store with a big parking lot in the front, but the new one fronts the sidewalk and fills in the street. The company also added a strip of retail spaces below and adjacent to the grocery store.

The Safeway itself was obviously done well, as most people who used the old Social Safeway probably continue to use the new one. There are more grocery options across the city than there were 10 years ago, but for western Ward 2 and lower Ward 3, the Georgetown Safeway is still a solid option.

But the retail market around the Safeway has struggled. Noodles and Co. at Wisconsin and S closed after only a couple years, and the Roosters barbershop, tucked away in a poor location off Wisconsin, barely lasted a year. The northernmost street level space under the Safeway briefly had a Verizon store before it sat vacant for years. Other spaces in the older buildings between the Safeway and R Street have also been vacant for years.

Photo by the author.

If more people lived in upper Georgetown, more people would shop there

More residents in the immediate proximity would be a boon to businesses along this stretch of Wisconsin, including those in the Safeway properties (that's the grocery store building itself, plus all the buildings down to the Jos. A Bank just north of S).

Residential could have been part of the grocery store's development, but some zoning relief would have been necessary. The southern building (i.e. the old Noodles and the Jos. A Bank) is zoned C-2-A. That allows commercial and residential up to 50 feet tall, far more than the single story Safeway went with. The lot occupancy allowance, however, would have presented a problem: When you build commercial in C-2-A, you can use 100% of the lot (which the buildings now use), but you can only use 60% when you build residential.

The other buildings are zoned C-1. This doesn't allow residential at all except for group homes. It also only allows three story buildings.

Could Safeway have overcome these relatively minor difficulties? Probably. I asked Craig Muckle, a Safeway representative, whether the company considered building residential. He replied that generally Safeway doesn't reveal their internal considerations but that in this particular case a desire to rebuild the grocery store in "as short a time as possible" was a driving concern. He didn't mention it, but the saga of the Cathedral Commons redevelopment by Giant up Wisconsin Avenue probably weighed in on the decision.

Cathedral Commons. Image from Google Maps.

It's not the case the Safeway simply doesn't do residential development. The company proposed developing its Palisades location into a mixed-use project. Faced with community opposition, though, it dropped it and promptly put the property up for sale (although it doesn't appear to have found a buyer).

Safeway also redesigned its Petworth store, adding residential space to that property. It was even done by the same architect as the Social Safeway.

The Petworth Safeway has lots of housing on top. Image from Google Maps.

Whatever reason they had for not adding a residential component in Georgetown, Safeway missed an opportunity to bring a lot more economic stability to this forlorn section of Wisconsin Avenue.


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.


DC's family leave bill may need work, but kneejerk reactions won't make it better

DC's proposed Family Leave Act, if adopted, would be the nation's most ambitious paid leave program for workers. The Washington Post recently published a kneejerk opposition to it that's based on several flawed understandings of the bill, and it's important to set the record straight.

DC's Family Leave Act would help make sure little ones like these don't become regular fixtures at the office. Photo by Jen Kim on Flickr.

Last week, the Washington Post editorial board said the bill, drafted by Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso, would go unnecessarily further than similar bills around the country, that jobs would leave DC because of it, and that it wouldn't help those who need it most.

In brief, the proposed paid leave program would replace all or part of a worker's salary for up to 16 weeks for leave associated with certain qualifying circumstances. The most obvious qualifying circumstance would be maternity or paternity leave, but leave to care for a sick or elderly family member would also be covered. The program would provide up to $1,000 per week to match a worker's salary up to $52,000 a year. Salary above that level would be matched at 50% up to a $3,000 per week cap.

The bill proposes to pay for the program from a fund generated by a .5%-1% payroll tax on employers for all their employees (not just District residents). It would operate much like unemployment insurance: When you go on leave you would apply for benefits, which would be paid from the fund. Your employer would not be obligated to pay you.

There are a lot of questions that still need answers regarding how the program will work and what changes the proposed bill might need. How would it interact with existing paid leave programs offered by private employers? How would "double dipping" be prevented? Would the fund be solvent?

There should certainly be a productive conversation between policy makers, the public, and business owners to refine the bill into its final form. All of these questions are more must be addressed before the final bill is adopted and—in some ways more importantly—before the regulations go into effect. Unfortunately, the Post editorial detracts from the potential for future discourse.

The DC Council is not out of control, nor is it crazy for proposing this

The opening premise of the Post editorial is that the DC Council is deep into a bender of naively progressive legislation that is overwhelming the District's business community. But there isn't all that much evidence to back this stance up:

Witness the burst of legislation in the past three years requiring employers to pay higher salaries, provide new benefits and face new regulations . Now, with the ink barely dry on those laws, a majority of the council wants to put an additional burden on employers with a tax that would allow workers to take up to 16 weeks of paid family leave annually.
If you click on those examples, the first is a link to an article on the District's newly-higher minimum wage (a change the Post editorial board itself admitted was necessary, even if it disagreed with the timing and degree).

The second link is to an article about the Paid Family Leave bill itself, and the third is to a proposal to require personal trainers to register and meet certain certification requirements. Notably it was a proposed regulation, not a law, and one that was gutted before adoption.

The above is all the editorial could come up with to demonstrate how out of control the Council is.

The Post actually doesn't have its facts straight

The end of the excerpt really shows how flawed the board's position is. The proposed bill will not allow workers to take up to 16 weeks of family leave per year. They already have that right. Since 1991, under the DC Family Medical Leave Act DC workers have been entitled to take the 16 weeks. The only change that the new bill would make is that people without the economic security of, say, a law firm associate, will actually be able to afford to take the leave they already have the right to take.

Which leads to another baffling argument that the editorial makes:

this broad-brushed approach doesn't target resources to the workers who are most in need. Low-income and minority groups have the least access to paid leave options, so it would be far more sensible for the city to design a program that helped them most. That would be the truly progressive option.
The proposed bill would provide 100% income-replacement for workers making $52,000 or less. How does that not target low-income and minority groups? Would they prefer the program pay people even more than their salaries on leave? How in the world can the editorial criticize the bill for being alarmingly radical and yet not progressive enough in the same breath?


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.


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.


The rise of the Airbnb investment property?

Airbnb, the controversial service that lets homeowners temporarily rent out a room or a whole house, has been in Georgetown for at least a year. But listings in Georgetown suggest that Airbnb is becoming a way for real estate managers to rent out investment properties at much higher rates than they'd get with long-term tenants.

Photo by edwhitaker on Flickr.

Specifically, among the dozen or so Airbnb listings in Georgetown, I found four that were recently sold (i.e. within the last two years). The service advertises itself as a way for homeowners to "rent out some extra space effortlessly." But now, it looks like investors are buying properties with the sole intention of renting them out as an Airbnb.

The numbers make sense. One house was bought in 2013 for about $1.3 million. It rents out on Airbnb at over $6,000 a week. In the spring and summer, it charges $1,000 a weekend night. A similar house rented on a long term basis would attract no more than about $7,000 a month (for what it's worth, Zillow estimates only a $5,800 per month rent). Airbnb obviously has more risks since the property could remain empty most of the time, but it has significantly more upside.

Clearly many properties in Georgetown are already purchased simply as investment properties. They run the gamut from run-down rentals to upscale rowhouses. But these are generally rented out on a long term basis. Airbnb rentals are essentially unregulated hotels. The guests stay for a few days, then leave.

This is hardly a phenomenon isolated to Georgetown. The New York Times recently reported on the profit that New York City renters can make by subletting their apartments on Airbnb. One entrepreneur started out by listing just his extra bedroom. Soon he realized that he could rent out a second apartment solely for the purpose of "subletting" it to Airbnb customers. He reported a $6,000 month profit. A report by the New York attorney general found that a small number of commercial operators represented the vast bulk of the Airbnb business in the city.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have a house around the corner from me that converted from a yearly rental property to an Airbnb. On the plus side, the property is kept-up better than it was before since it gets a thorough cleaning after every guest. But the house is also empty most of the time. We've essentially lost a neighbor.

If landlords now see more profit in Airbnb than long-term rentals, that might be an unfortunate development both for renters (who will face higher rental costs on fewer available units) and homeowners (who will have fewer full-time neighbors). And that's not even considering the lucrative hotel taxes that the city is not likely collecting (Airbnb leaves it up to the owner to collect and report the taxes).

Most people probably could not care less what happens to the market for Georgetown homes that rent for $7,000 per month. And rightly so. But there's no reason this pattern could not be occurring at lower price points and in other neighborhoods.

Many Airbnb listings probably already run afoul of DC's zoning laws. But I'm of the opinion that as long as they are not causing a problem for the neighbors (say, for example, a house that pitches itself as a party-hosting venue) then there's no reason to complain.

Maybe this will be a self-correcting trend. A handful of Airbnb listings can demand high fees. If dozens of landlords tried that, though, the market would likely collapse. Other than the city ensuring basic safety and the collection of taxes, laissez faire may be the best general approach to Airbnb for now. But at some point the city is going to have to get its arms around the phenomenon. Investors flipping properties into Airbnb listings will likely accelerate that day's arrival.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan


What's the oldest continuously named street in DC?

I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.

Image from Google Street View.

Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.

Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:

None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.

So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.

Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.

All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.

But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?

In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.

But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.

So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.

A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.


See Georgetown's historic movie theatres

Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.

The former Key theatre. Photo by Constantine Hannaher on Flickr.

Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!

Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.

The Biograph. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.

The Georgetown. Photo by Tony on Flickr.

Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.

Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:

The Dumbarton in 1913. Photo by joe on Flickr.

Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.

Tommy Hilfiger, once home to the Lido theatre. Photo by Bill in DC on Flickr.

This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:

The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.

I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."

The former Barnes and Noble. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.

The Foundry. Photo by kiev_dinamo on Flickr.

Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.

So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.

Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.

Public Spaces

For a while, Georgetown was "West Washington"

Businesses and residents of the neighborhood near Nationals Park can't decide whether to call it Navy Yard or Capital Riverfront. If Georgetown is any precedent, then the newer Capitol Riverfront name won't stick, at least not forever. While a new name might stick around for a little while, eventually people are drawn back to historic names.

Undated map of West Washington (formerly Georgetown) from the Library of Congress.

Georgetown preexisted the District of Columbia by 50 years. After the formation of the District, Georgetown remained an independent city within the new capital, but it lost its charter in 1871 and merged with the city and county of Washington. Ever since, there have been no independent municipalities in DC.

In 1878, Congress revoked DC's limited democracy and imposed an appointed commissioner system that lasted until 1967. In doing so, Congress redubbed Georgetown as "West Washington".

Despite the fact that Georgetown had existed so long as an independent city and only dissolved 7 years prior, people gave a genuine go at using the new name. Throughout the 1880's, the Washington Post is full of society notes not from Georgetown, but West Washington.

This new name was consistently used well through the 1890's and into the first decade of the 20th century. But by the teens, its usage appears to have trailed off. By the 1920's, the only place you'll find references to "West Washington" was in the name of the Baptist church at 31st and P streets NW.

Originally the Baptist Church of Georgetown, it changed its name to West Washington Baptist Church in 1899. It held on to this name all the way until 1955, well after Georgetown returned as the primary neighborhood name. The change back was probably inspired by the bicentennial of the neighborhood, when nostalgia broke out in the form of beer and preservation boards.

The lesson? It might take a while, but if Georgetown is any guide, Navy Yard will eventually win out.

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