Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Georgetown retail

One of the worst things the Post did to cut expenses was to de-localize what had been the "Extra" sections, published once or twice/week in each of the counties (plus DC) that the Post serves. So now it's "Local Living" with one article, usually (but not every week), that's local news, plus some blurbs and the community calendar.

Today's DC section does have a truly local article and it features Georgetown and its retail future, "As Furin’s bakery closes after 27 years, Georgetown retail faces identity crisis."

The article is interesting only because there is a sidebar and some quotes from people about how Georgetown is increasingly less relevant to younger, monied, residents. The kind of people going to H Street or U Street maybe. (I can't imagine that Georgetown wants to re-acquire the demographics consuming Adams-Morgan at night.) From the article:

Is Furin’s merely an example of the normal business cycle of Georgetown, or a sign of larger problems to come? Do mom-and-pop shops have a place in the neighborhood or are national chains destined to take it over?

It's both, it's not an either/or question.

The thing with national chains is an ongoing story, one that the Post hasn't covered very well, although the New York Times has back in 2005, in "Developer Infuses Historic Properties With Commerce," which focused on how one development firm has systematically "upgraded" the retail in Georgetown, increasing the number of chains and raising rents in the process. (Also instructive from the Times is this story about chain expansion outside of Manhattan, "Now, Big-Name Retail Chains Will Take the Other Boroughs, Too.")

Note that while doing some filing, I came across an article I had forgotten about, "Chains Chase Growth in Georgetown," in the Wall Street Journal on July 6th, 2011.

The sidebar, "Who goes to Georgetown anymore? You tell us about the neighborhood’s clientele." says this:

U Street, H Street, Adams Morgan, Penn Quarter and Chinatown. All have emerged, one after another, as the District’s new “it” neighborhoods.

But where does that leave Georgetown? Once the epicenter of D.C. shopping and nightlife, the Northwest neighborhood is less and less a destination for the Washington area’s younger generation.

“They’re not coming here,” Paul Cohn, president of Capital Restaurant Concepts, said at a panel discussion coordinated by the Georgetown Business Improvement District and the Georgetown Business Association in July. “People are wondering, ‘Why am I going to Georgetown?’ ”

Which is why I found it incredible that Georgetown found that a branding exercise was not necessary. See "Georgetown’s New Brand: An Anti-Brand" (and also "Why Aren’t Better Restaurants Coming to Georgetown?") from the Washington City Paper Housing Complex blog.

One of the problems with the word "branding" is that it means different things to different people. A very good piece about the issues that come up is from the Baltimore City Paper, "Happy?: Baltimore's latest tourism campaign rekindles the city's ongoing branding issues."

I don't like the word myself because I think of Madison Avenue hucksters, but I wrote in a piece in 2005 (Town-City branding or "We are all destination managers now") about how "we are all destination managers now," and the reality is that we have to manage the "positions" and "identities" of our commercial districts in a concerted fashion.

This is really hard because stakeholders (especially merchants) in a commercial district think they know everything about marketing a commercial district (as opposed to their own business), and mostly they don't.

Georgetown, just like other commercial districts, has to be focused on this constantly, because all the best competitors in the region, from Tysons Center to the "new" Rockville Town Center to Silver Spring to Bethesda (Bethesda Row is killer), H Street to Alexandria to Reston Town Center, etc., are focused on their positioning, identity, and marketing.

Maybe this hand-wringing as expressed in the Post article will be helpful. Maybe not.

I have outlined some important (pathbreaking actually, but the idea is straightforward and builds on other work) concepts for commercial district revitalization framework planning, in terms of planning the retail and attractions mix of a commercial district more purposively, by type of good (convenience, specialty, shopping), price point, services and attractions (even civic assets and the public realm), time of day, and day of the week.

It's outlined on pages 15-18 of the plan I did for Cambridge, Maryland. I suppose some day I need to write it up in more detail as a full-blown paper.

The problem with doing this kind of planning in DC is that all the stakeholders are smart, they think they know everything already, they tend to be hermetic in their perspectives (in terms of who they compete with, e.g., this article, "Shoppers mull question of what will replace Silver Spring Borders," in the Gazette about what will replace the Border's Bookstore in Silver Spring features a quote from a resident of Petworth explaining how she goes to shop in Silver Spring on weekends), they don't take the time to bone up, do some research and reading on the issue, a lot of them live in the suburbs, so they don't have the right knowledge base as it relates to urban issues, and they only go to the tried and true "branding" and consulting firms, so new or more up to date concepts don't come into the equation very often.

Instead the same firms get picked (e.g., look at the Mt. Pleasant and the Upper 14th Street studies) and they say the same thing each time. Meanwhile, why is it that other places have kick butt traditional commercial districts, such as Hampden in Baltimore or Carytown in Richmond?

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