Joe Sternlieb: Transforming the City and How We Move Around In It

“Everything about cities makes sense to me,” Joe says. He grew up in Andover, MA three miles from the closest store. He so hated the suburbs that the minute he had the opportunity to live in a city, he grabbed it and never looked back. Today he’s the CEO of the Georgetown BID, supporting businesses, expanding streateries, connecting bike trails and pushing for a Gondola across the Potomac to Rosslyn. It’s an important job—and he’s having a blast doing it.

Over the course of his 27-year career in DC, Joe’s had a hand in a remarkable number of development projects and policy innovations: establishing BIDs and the Circulator, and laying the groundwork for library modernizations, the CapitalOne Arena and Convention Center. “I’ve been given this great gift of being able to play in a city. I get to wake up every morning and ask myself what I can do that’s fun to make the city a better place.”

He jumped into cities as a community organizer in the early 1980s. He first went to New York City working on the nuclear weapons freeze campaign. He moved to DC in 1993 for what he thought would be a 6 month gig at the PAC, Freeze Voter. That turned into three years, after which he moved onto People For The American Way and the Leadership Conference On Civil Rights.

In the meantime he got elected to the local ANC in Logan Circle. This was back when you could not walk alone after dark along 14th street. In one of his more contentious battles, he worked to integrate a new homeless shelter into his community, working with Catholic charities to connect the shelter to community members.

He went to MIT to get a grad degree in city planning and came right back in 1993, this time working at the DC Council for Charlene Drew Jarvis and as staff director for the Economic Development Committee. “She opened the city to me,” he says of Dr. Jarvis. These were hugely formative years for the city. He wrote the first draft of legislation to build the downtown arena and to create the convention center authority. He also drafted the legislation to allow for the creation of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). He had a front row seat to discussions that laid the foundation for the city’s renaissance.

But the job wasn’t so great for work-life balance. Council Chair David Clarke often kept Council in session until sunrise. With a baby on the way, Joe needed to find something else.

He didn’t move far, taking a job as Deputy Director of DC’s first BID (the Downtown BID) under Richard Bradley. He stayed 10 years, “doing lots of really fun projects.” They coordinated a blue ribbon task force to figure out what to do with the old convention center site, which would become CityCenter. A second task force planned how to give the city’s libraries a serious capital improvement face lift, a task that 20 years later is nearing completion.

He would never stray far from his activism roots, co-founding DC Vote with Daniel Solomon in 1998 based on an article written by his friend Jamie Raskin, now a Congressman from Montgomery County. It grew into the largest nonprofit exclusively dedicated to DC representation in Congress and statehood.

The Downtown BID took ideas the city had been mulling over for decades and went out and made it happen. They installed citywide signage, directing tourists to key destinations in an age when there was no Google Maps. They got the wheels rolling on a new customer-friendly, luxury public bus concept to move business people and tourists easily around town. After 8 years of due diligence, research and getting all the right signioffs, the Circulator bus was finally born in 2005.

Joe is especially keen on projects that change the way people think about getting around town.

The Gondola could be next. It’s cool, interesting, reliable (a new cabin arrives every 12 seconds) and fast (four minutes to cross). It could become something that commuters, tourists, shoppers and students use. The Georgetown Gondola landing site could become a larger transit hub and potential future Metro station.

The idea sprang from a 2008 trip to Portland, Oregon which was intended for DC transportation leaders to learn about streetcars. The delegation happened to also take a cable car ride up a steep hill that gave great views of the Columbia River. Someone mused how something similar could work nicely in Georgetown. “Everyone laughed,” Joe remembers, “and thought there’s no chance it could ever get approved.” FC2 Trustee Ginger Laytham, who was on the trip and now helps lead the effort as a BID Board member, said Joe should really look into it.

When the Georgetown BID floated the idea publicly, the media took it and ran. Joe jokes that it’s 2 percent of what they do, but it gets 99 percent of the media attention. They raised money for a feasibility study, which determined the idea could work and would solve a lot of transportation problems at once. The city is still years away from final approvals and starting any Gondola construction, but planning continues apace.

He’s spent years trying to make Georgetown and the city more bike friendly and accessible. The BID worked with DDOT to install more Bikeshare stations, which is no small feat in historic, narrow-sidewalked Georgetown. They are also connecting trail networks like the Capital Crescent and Rock Creek trails to dedicated city bike lanes.

“I’m a total evangelist for electric bikes,” Joe says. He’s Chair of the DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST) board and he’s all about bringing micro-mobility to the masses. “Electric bikes aren’t a different kind of bike,” he insists, “but a different kind of car.” They are great replacements for short-haul car trips. You can get across town fast and go up a hill without breaking a sweat. Someday we may all be cruising around from meeting to meeting or commuting on electric bikes.

“They really are a great deal of fun,” he smiles.