When the man's name is Rockefeller and he wants to talk about investing in the local community, you can't say no.
Thus, leaders of Washington business rearranged their schedules last week so they could attend a reception for Rodman C. Rockefeller and his associates from New York's Rockefeller Center Development Corp.
The timing was fortuitous, since the Rockefeller interests represent one of five bidders for a key piece of D.C. property -- 10 acres in Southwest Washington at the end of the 14th Street Bridge and next to L'Enfant Plaza. Later this year, the Redevelopment Land Agency is expected to select one of the five proposed projects for this site and development of a million square feet of office space and related projects will go forward.
But the message that Rockefeller had last week transcends an immediate competition with local development groups for the last remaining large parcel of urban renewal land in Southwest.
Whether Rockefeller and associates are selected by RLA for this particular property, Rockefeller Center Development Corp. is coming to Washington and it's coming to the District, not the suburbs. That's the most important point.
As Marriott Corp. Chairman J. W. (Bill) Marriott said: "It's exciting news that Rockefeller is interested in D.C." Marriott would operate a 350-room hotel in the proposed $325 million Rockefeller center of Southwest Washington, and Marriott Corp. would invest in the overall project, said the chief executive of the hotel and restaurant company based in Bethesda.
Bill Marriott went to school here with Rodman Rockefeller and the latter credited his old classmate with rekindling interest in D.C. development after two earlier local real estate overtures were turned down. In the late 1970s, Rockefeller Center proposed working with the National Press Club on redevelopment of that organization's downtown parcel but found no interest. Later, Rockefeller Center was among unsuccessful bidders for a Metro site.
Now, the New York firm is studying potential parcels all over the city for the type of development it favors -- "impact projects" in the words of Rockefeller. "We do ask ourselves, 'Does it make a difference'?" he said.
Rockefeller emphasized this goal in an interview. For one thing, the son of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller has made a recent investment here on his own and separate from the family corporation, buying the Park Central Hotel at 18th and G Streets NW with local investors.
As for Rockefeller Center, that venture also has pinpointed exactly the type of tenant it expects to attract to large office projects here -- corporate headquarters.
"This is one of the reasons for our optimism about Washington," Rockefeller stated. "The major headquarters market is not tapped . . . it hasn't been adequately explored and we'd be opening a new market."
If Rockefeller is correct in his assessment of the future for office development in this city, a major new dimension would be added in a building explosion that to date has been dominated by law firms, accountants, trade associations and other professionals.
To the extent that Washington has become attractive to national corporations for major office complexes here, the suburbs have been the magnet. Martin Marietta in Montgomery County and Mobil Corp. in Fairfax are two examples.
Moreover, the Rockefeller decision to aim at corporate headquarters offices in D.C. comes at a time when there are projections of an oversupply of office space in the city within the next few years, based on assumptions about the normal growth in the types of offices that have proliferated here in the past decade.
If a new legion of tenants is added, the 3.5 million square feet of new office space coming on the market next year alone and additional millions planned in the following years may be occupied readily.
In 1976, Rockefeller Center began to branch out to the national real estate market and it acquired the nationwide leasing and management firm of Cushman & Wakefield Inc. Projects since have been located primarily in center cities -- a headquarters for Public Service Electric & Gas Co. in Newark, second phase of the Renaissance Center on Detroit's riverfront, Wells Fargo & Co. bank headquarters in Los Angeles and the Continental Corp. headquarters and an Irving Trust Co. operations center in lower Manhattan.
Next will be Washington. "It's one of the largest office markets in the U.S. and we're office-oriented," said John Burnett, president of Rockefeller Center Development. "We're not speculative developers," Rockefeller added. "As we begin the planning and design, we identify major tenant prospects . . . and typically pre-lease a big space and design for the tenants to stay . . . we come to stay."
The goal of this method of real estate development in center cities is not just to better the urban environment, although that is one result, Rockefeller emphasized. "Our objective is to invest, keep the property, watch it grow in value over time, and see our assets appreciate," he asserted.
With the extent of finances available to a Rockefeller family venture, there's no need to be speculative. The ability to invest now and be patient about financial rewards is a great luxury. The decision to do so in D.C. is nothing but good news for the city.