Several of the findings in a recent Washington Post survey of shoppers' attitudes have effectively exploded the myth that the old downtown retail core will again become the major retail center in the region.
Key responses in the survey tend to show that it will take a great deal more than some cosmetic changes, new shops, office buildings and restaurants and a different traffic pattern to attract suburban shoppers to the old retail core.
Changes envisioned by planners should transform the old downtown area into a vibrant center of activity and a viable source of revenue for the District. But planners and dreamers will have to make some drastic changes in their grand scheme if downtown is to compete with scores of suburban shopping centers that ring the district.
Even though the survey found that area residents are enthusiastic about the future of the so-called new downtown, there is no reason to believe that suburban residents will suddenly change their shopping habits.
Although they no doubt will make occasional trips to the downtown retail core, the bulk of retail sales will be generated by workers in the area and by tourists.
A phenomenon that changed the course of retailing some 25 years ago continues to be the dominant factor in determining where people do the bulk of their shopping.
In that sense, Washington is no different from most cities. Major demographic changes, the advent of the suburban shopping center 30 years ago and the subsequent proliferation of giant regional malls have all but wiped out or significantly altered urban retail centers. Despite the success of some revitalized urban retail projects, suburban shoppers aren't about to abandon the regional malls that offer them one-stop shopping, free and ample parking, ease of access and relative safety.
Indeed, city planners conceded two years ago that the role of downtown and its users have changed. The kinds of people who used downtown changed over the past two decades, planners wrote.
"The character, services, merchandise and ownership of downtown establishments changed to meet new markets," they continued.
When asked where they prefer to do their shopping, 69 percent of the respondents in The Post survey, including nearly half of the District residents polled, said the suburbs. What's interesting here is that 87 percent of those who live outside the Beltway and 64 percent of those who live inside it said they prefer shopping in the suburbs.
It could be argued that, given the present state of downtown, those responses aren't surprising. It might be argued further that major changes could attract many of the same persons to downtown. Fair enough.
Improved parking would make a difference to 90 percent. Eighty-one percent said they could be attracted by the kind of entertainment staged at the Kennedy Center. A greater variety of shops than any other place in the Washington area would attract 79 percent, professional sports at the convention center would draw 64 percent and frequent runs downtown by Metro subway trains at night would appeal to 76 percent.
With few exceptions, those interests center around nighttime activities and, to the extent that city officials desire to see a thriving downtown area after dark, the responses should be encouraging. But no combination of those attractions will make downtown the retail center that it once was.
Although the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau reports substantial imnprovement in retail sales at downtown stores this year, the same holds true for retailers everywhere. Ironically, major retailers with stores downtown have tied their growth to that of the suburbs and, in the absence of some drastic change, are not about to abandon that strategy despite a hiatus in suburban shopping center development.
With more than 12 regional malls and at least 120 shopping centers within 25 minutes of the average suburban home, there is little incentive for consumers to shop downtown.
And even if they wanted to, they aren't likely to find adequate and inexpensive parking facilities as long as the city refuses to compete with parking garage owners.
What's more, not even a completed subway system will make a difference in the shopping habits of suburban residents. All the subway stations downtown won't compensate for the shortsighted planning that will make the completed Metro rail system anything but accessible to a large segment of suburban commuters.