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Georgetown's evolution: Why some of the neighborhood's most iconic institutions are no longer

Thursday - 9/4/2014, 11:31am  ET

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Like most neighborhoods in the District, Georgetown has seen several changes in the last few decades. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON -- California resident Jen Faiz describes what she remembers as a typical weekend night in Georgetown in the 80s.

"The joy of being with one's friends and the impending adventure that the evening's crowd would bring; the general chaos and mischievous air that accompanied being young," she writes on a Facebook page for Poseurs, one of Georgetown's former venues.


Click on the gallery to see images and stories of Georgetown then and now


Faiz was one of the many who frequented Poseurs -- a new wave punk bar and night club on the corner of 34th and M Streets in Georgetown; it was the first D.C. club to forgo live music and focus on music vidoes -- a novelty that's somewhat of a distant memory.

"At the time [in Georgetown], there were a million things to do and a million options for good music and good times. And let's not forget the dancing and the many fun interactions of people from all walks of life," Faiz says.

Poseurs -- a second home for many seeking a night of dancing, drinking and youthful freedom -- closed its doors in 1989 after six years. Now, the 3405 M Street NW location is home to a running store.

Over the past 20 years, Georgetown has seen several cherished institutions close up shop. Nathans, a restaurant and bar on the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets NW, was open for 40 years before it served its last order in 2009. Mr. Smith's, a fixture on M Street for nearly 50 years, recently announced plans to move out of its current location due to skyrocketing rent.

And along with Poseurs, the Northwest neighborhood was once home to many entertainment venues, such as the Bayou, Cellar Door and Desperados.

Georgetown is one of D.C.'s most historic areas. It was founded in the late 1700s and quickly became an economic hub, mostly due to its canals which imported and shipped goods. Ever since, Georgetown has maintained a quaint and historic, yet consumer and retail- driven, presence. And like many neighborhoods do at one time or another, it's seen a lot of change.

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In 2008, Topher Mathews, who moved to the D.C. area in 1999 and into Georgetown in 2003, started chronicling the transformations taking place in his neighborhood on his website Georgetown Metropolitan. He says one of the most notable changes is the more recent influx of high-end retailers and the reduction in restaurants in the neighborhood.

"On M Street, it just seems like restaurants are having a tougher go at it," says Mathews, who also serves on the board of the Civics Association of Georgetown. "And retailer shops, especially national brands, don't mind paying the rent."

John Asadoorian of Asadoorian Retail Solutions, a local retail brokerage firm, says the changes Georgetown has seen over the years -- from the closing of beloved, old-timey institutions, to the constant turnover at some addresses -- isn't necessarily due to changes within Georgetown, but rather the city as a whole.

"When you start talking about changes in restaurants and what not, there's a nostalgia that goes along with places like The Third Edition and Nathans and Mr. Smith's. I could go down the list," he says.

The reason these places have closed, Asadoorian says, is due to a variety of factors. The age of the shop owners, the current customer base and the demands of the changing market all play a role in what succeeds in Georgetown and what doesn't.

"'Millennial' is an over-used term, but the millennials are driving change in the city," says Asadoorian, 52, who was born and raised in D.C. and has been in the real estate and development industry for 30 years.

He says there recently was -- and still is -- a lot of room for development in the District, whereas 10 to 20 years ago, Georgetown was already established.

"If you've been to Union Market, who in their right mind would have thought Union Market would be what it is," he says. "Or who would be talking about a Whole Foods going on H Street or condominiums in Shaw?"

Asadorian says sometimes Georgetown is perceived, especially by D.C.'s younger demographic, as a "nice, comfy, cozy, perception of the past." The Yards, H Street, Union Market, Shaw and 14th Street are all ushering in new, revived corridors, and "here's nice little lovely Georgetown that's still stuck in the 80s, if you will," he says.

A lot of it has to do with the population that still considers Georgetown "classics" to be well, classics.

"If I was at The Third Edition, Nathans, Mr. Smith's and other restaurants and bars that have closed in my 20s and 30s, and now I'm in my 50s, well I'm not going there today. And who have they cultivated as new customers when they're competing with The Passenger, Columbia Room Red Hen in Bloomingdale? There's too much noise elsewhere in the city," Asadoorian says.

"The older people aren't going and the younger people are looking for a more cultivated, as opposed to dated, experience. Some of these operations are sort of treading water," he says.

Georgetown resident and blogger Mathews agrees that the city has more to choose from than ever.

"It's not just Georgetown or Tysons anymore; there are a lot more options," he says.

This isn't to say that every establishment in Georgetown is dated, because that simply isn't the case. In fact, Georgetown is home to some of the nation's -- and the world's -- biggest name brands -- Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade and Rag and Bone, to name a few. But Mathews says having more big-name retailers doesn't necessarily grow the vibrancy of the neighborhood.

He says he would like to see more fast-casual restaurants in Georgetown to help support the retail business and the neighborhood. People don't always want to eat at a nice sit-down restaurant while spending the day shopping, he says.

As far as the influx in retail goes, Mathews suspects a few of the big-name retailers don't mind paying a lot in rent, even if they aren't selling much. He suggests it's a "show-room concept," so chains can make an association between their brands and the neighborhood, regardless of the business they bring in.

Joe Sternlieb, CEO and president of the Georgetown Business Improvement District, does not deny high rent plays a role in the neighborhood's retail market. He says there's still a high demand for space, even with other areas of the city growing. He acknowledges some rents in Georgetown can hover around $100 to $200 a foot. However, he says, of the 450 retail spaces in Georgetown, 14 restaurants have stayed in the neighborhood for 25 years or more.

"The big complaint we get from retailers is that it's just so expensive to locate here because there is so much demand," Sternlieb says.

Retail broker Asadoorian explains that rent is a function of sales volume for retailers in Georgetown. In other words, rent in Georgetown is high because it has a higher concentration of retailers and shops than anywhere else in the District.

"A Sephora next to a Blue Mercury, next to a Kate Spade generates a certain kind of co-tenancy, and that drives sales," he says.

"As Georgetown evolves and the merchandising of the stores evolve, sales and foot traffic increase, and thus, rent increases," says Asadoorian, who says rent in Georgetown is higher than 14th Street, Barracks Row and other D.C. shopping areas.

However, he emphasizes it's not the imagery one would suspect -- that of big, bad landlords driving up rents and pushing small, independent shop owners out of the neighborhood.

"Rents aren't pushing retailers out," he says. "Most landlords, unless they plan on selling the property, want stability. Leases for retailers and restaurants are usually 10 years long."

As the Georgetown neighborhood continues to grow, change and evolve -- like most in the city do -- Mathews says he is hopeful for what the future holds, especially along stretches on Wisconsin Avenue and in Georgetown's restaurant sector.

Retail Asadoorian suggests embracing the change.

"Really, what you see is the evolution of Washington, the graceful aging of some of our beloved institutions," Asadoorian says.

"The beauty is, we're witnessing the city and the region just evolving. You don't necessarily have to reinvent Georgetown, but of course you do. Otherwise it gets stale and dated. So not only are we seeing areas like 14th Street and H Street and Shaw coming up, but we're now seeing the sort of renaissance of established areas like Georgetown."

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Editor's Note: The previous version said Poseurs was the first club to embrace and feature music videos. This has been changed to say focus on music videos over live music.

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