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How Georgetown Became D.C.'s Hub For Architecture And Design Firms

The work of D.C.’s architects can be seen throughout its city streets and suburbs, but to see the people who design the buildings, one just has to walk through Georgetown, the historic neighborhood that serves as an epicenter for the city’s architecture and design class. 

The entrance to Hickok Cole's office in Georgetown

"It’s hard to walk more than 50 feet and not run into an architect here in Georgetown," said Shalom Baranes, one of D.C.'s top architects, whose 175-person firm is based in the neighborhood. "There is a sense of community." 

From large firms such as Shalom Baranes Associates, Hickok Cole Architects and HOK Group to five- to 10-person shops like Travis Price Architects, many of the most recognizable names in D.C. architecture call Georgetown home. Georgetown is one of the city's smallest office markets, with just 3.4M SF of total inventory, but as of year-end 2017 it had 34 architecture and design firms, according to the Georgetown Business Improvement District

Hickok Cole founder Michael Hickok launched the company in a Dupont Circle townhouse in 1988 and moved it to Georgetown 15 years ago. He said the neighborhood had already emerged as a hotbed for architectural firms. 

"It's part of the identity of Georgetown," Hickok said.

M Street in Georgetown

Hickok said the character of Georgetown's buildings, with historic qualities and smaller scale than many of D.C.'s office submarkets, combined with the neighborhood's walkability and vibrant restaurant scene, drive architects there. The affordability doesn't hurt either; Georgetown's office rents are lower than the central business district. 

"Most of us, given the choice, would not choose to be on K Street; we would rather be in a neighborhood that has those qualities of scale that we love so much," Hickok said. "It's just charming." 

The architecture and design sector is Georgetown's third-largest industry, behind law firms and advertising companies, according to Georgetown BID. 

"Not only are they important tenants for the buildings, but they're an important employee to have in the neighborhood," Georgetown BID Director of Planning and Economic Development Jamie Scott said of architects. "The young creatives are looking for an environment they can go out to restaurants, go shopping, go to bars." 

Baranes said the neighborhood has had a concentration of architects since before he opened there in the 1980s. He attributes it primarily to the neighborhood's low rents, with much of its office stock consisting of Class-B and C properties that architects can afford to lease. 

"When I first moved here it was mostly smaller firms that were here," Baranes said. "Now you tend to see a fair number of larger, established firms." 

Travis Price and Senior Architect Kelly Davies Grace

Travis Price, who moved his eight-person firm to Georgetown in 2001, also credited the neighborhood's authenticity, history and scale. But above all else, he said one man in particular has been instrumental in making Georgetown the design hub it is today: Eastbanc founder Anthony Lanier.

"What Anthony did is he created a whole urban fabric around design," Price said. "He kept turning down lots of tenants at great expense to him to essentially make a theme here to make it a place to be. A big part of my move was just being around my fellow designers and architects."

Eastbanc has pioneered much of Georgetown's development over the last three decades. Chief among its projects is Cady's Alley, a 120K SF retail and residential development at 33rd and M streets NW that brands itself as "Georgetown's Design District." Its 23 retail tenants include several interior decorators, furniture stores, clothing brands and other design-oriented businesses. 

The entrance to Cady's Alley in Georgetown

When he first began working there, Lanier said that section of Georgetown was rundown and struggling. The developer wanted to find a spark to help revitalize it, and the design industry seemed like the perfect partner. Many of the design firms at the time were concentrated in a design center in a large building in Southwest D.C. that did not attract much pedestrian activity. 

"We wanted to revitalize the buildings in an alley that was full of rats," Lanier said. "No normal retailer in America was going to come out of the mall and go into a back alley. But European brands might have done that, and particularly design-oriented brands, because it was so much better than being on the third floor in some building in Southwest."

Lanier said Georgetown already had a hub of architects when he began working there in the 1980s, which he attributes to its low office rents, atypical buildings and a live-work environment. As he redeveloped old buildings, Lanier said he had a rule of only using Georgetown-based architects, further boosting the neighborhood's growing sector.

Eastbanc and its architectural partners created buildings that have drawn dozens of high-end design brands and teem with pedestrian activity today. Lanier said D.C.'s commercial real estate industry has recently become more focused on quality design, which has helped the city's architectural sector grow. 

"I still believe that the architects and the design industry is as important as ever, arguably even more so," Lanier said. "Washington has evolved as a global city dramatically since those days and is more and more adopting design. We are in an era where design is aspirational, so I think it’s very important for Georgetown to maintain that trajectory."