It's one of the most expensive cities, in terms of cost of living. The housing costs are prohibitive. Traffic conditions are horrendous. A major international corporation has trouble getting people to move there.
Sounds like New York, doesn't it? Wrong. According to an International Business Machines Corp. officer, the description applies to metropolitan Washington. With 8,500 D.C. area workers, IBM is the fifth largest private employer, but the company is shying away from new facilities because the boom-time atmosphere of the federal city and its suburbs makes it economically unattractive to many outsiders.
The April 16 edition of Forbes magazine is the latest national publication to recognize the Washington phenomenon in an article entitiled "Reversing in Exodus" that details how outside monay, the subway and other factors are "beginning to make a major difference in downtown Washington."
As the IBM official states, however, there are many problems associated with the type of real estate boom now in progress in Washington. For one thing, the cost of office building space has skyrocketed to the point where even the federal government itself is considering other sites.
That brings us 40 minutes or so up the parkway to downtown Baltimore, which is well on the way to accomplishing its own downtown renaissance. Could it be that federal agencies in the future will relocate to Baltimore's central city, instead of Crystal City, Rosslyn or the District of Columbia?
Bernard Manekin, a Baltimore native who heads one of this area's leading commercial and industrial real estate firms, thinks his city is a natural location for the federal bureaucrats.
From his office in Charles Center South, more than 20 floors above the sprawling inner harbor, Manekin looks out on a new Equitable Trust headquarters under construction, new Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone complex, the site of a Rouse Co. development that will include retailing, and the old Camden Yards, which Chessie System and the Oliver T. Carr Co. of Washington plan to develop with residences, offices and stores.
In some respects, Manekin is the Oliver Carr of Baltimore-a local developer who saw before many outsiders the real estate potential in a central city.
"Washington has undergone a metamorphosis, it used to be a housekeeping city for government . . . it was very small, people came to Baltimore for entertainment, shopping," Manekin recalled of the 1930s.
But today Washington has become so vital that, by comparison, "Baltimore suffers in the shadows." But Baltimore also has been adding office spare at a rate of more than 250,000 square feet a year in the last decade and is undergoing its own transformation. "The progress here, while very dynamic, is even greater when viewed against the lack of external and internal" stimulus created in Sunbelt cities or urban centers that house many corporate headquarters, according to Manekin.
While Baltimore has blossomed, there has been a major economic change in Washington: The growth of the private sector in a market where government jobs long had been dominant. Indeed, the service sector employment base now exceeds that of Uncle Sam in the D.C. area, primarily because of the arrival of new trade association, professional groups, unions and large offices of national corporations.
D.C. area builders, once happy to lease space to the government when the private sector wasn't too interested in the central city, now find a seller's market with more than 8 million square feet of office space due by 1981.
But the prices! D.C. office rents are now being quoted at $14 a square foot per year are expected to rise. It Baltimore, Manekin points out, the annual rent cost is still under $10 a square foot. Add to this the fact that government space experts say they need an additional 1 million square feet of offices in the near future, and the savings to taxpayers of locating somewhere else but downtown D.C. become obvious.
"The government faces a real crisis of housing offices and while there has been a lot of movement to Northern Virginia, because of close access to downtown Washington, President Carter has emphasized that he wants government facilities located in the central cities," Manekin asserts.
Manekin says Baltimore represents an excellent answer to Washington's space problem because of the "appreciably lower rates" as well as:
A good white collar labor market that collects lower wages and lives in an urban center where living costs are lower than in Washington.
The rebirth of this city's downtown core, including residences in the heart of the city such as old lofts that were converted recently.
"Extremely good" physical link between the federal government headquarters and what could become a satellite center, with four highways and railroad connections that could be upgraded for mass transportation.
"It's not unlike the development of service industries in southern Connecticut, Westchester County and New Jersey as an adjunct to Manhattan," he says.
Already, the Social Security Administration is building a huge complex here that will house up to 6,000 workers when completed in a year. Other federal agencies have expressed an interest in the Baltimore solution.
A trend may have started, and one of the major reasons, in Manekin's view, is the eight restrictions on buildings in D.C. that force builders to charge higher costs per square foot than Manekin can offer in Baltimore towers with more than 20 floors. CAPTION: Picture, BERNARD MANEKIN . . . satellite federal city?