Small and independent retailers have been asking some pointed questions in recent weeks about the future of retailing in downtown Washington.
Those questions obviously haven't been answered to their satisfaction since they first were raised two years ago. Nor have the questions been answered to most people's satisfaction.
There is, of course, a comprehensive plan, which contains some rather general declarations of the District's intention to create a so-called "living downtown" by the year 2000. However, there apparently is no definitive plan for the city to guide development in the old downtown retail core through the remainder of this century. If there is, then small retailers have a lot of company on their side of a communications gap.
Meanwhile, developers have left no doubt about their plans for the retail corridor. The rapid deployment of construction equipment tells the story better than any words could. With most of the prime office locations west of 15th Street NW practically built out, developers are descending en masse on Washington's old downtown core. An office vacancy rate of more than 10 percent downtown seems inconsequential for now, at least.
D.C. planners have established a target of 25.6 million square feet of additional office space downtown, and developers apparently are convinced that there will be strong demand for that amount of space over the next 15 years.
That projected rate of growth in office space obviously has strong implications for economic development in the District. A more immediate issue -- a concern, really, that is implicit in questions being asked by small retailers -- is what role will the D.C. government play in guiding massive development in the retail core. Displacement of small retail businesses is a real threat to the survival of many downtown merchants. In the absence of intervention by the D.C. government, dozens of viable retail stores will be replaced by another generation of sterile office buildings, many small and independent merchants believe.
Experience shows that retailers who have been displaced by new developments frequently are unable to find new locations at comparable rents. That is a major concern of an employment and economic development team formed earlier this year by Downtown Partnership. The partnership was formed last year as a cooperative effort by the public and private sectors to assist in the revitalization of downtown.
In considering strategies to improve opportunities for small and minority businesses downtown, members of the partnership's economic development team generally agreed that the process of economic revitalization "threatens the continued presence of small and minority businesses in the downtown."
The costs related to revitalization also tend to discourage larger retailers from leasing more expensive space in new buildings. That is one of the arguments underlying the District's attempt to lure Bloomingdale's to Washington. The city has offered bonus construction rights to a developer in exchange for his payment of $2.5 million to Bloomies to persuade the New York retailer to locate in a proposed downtown project.
The Bloomingdale factor, not surprisingly, has rankled some of the District's small retail merchants.
Referring to the city's Bloomingdale plan, the owner of the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store in Adams-Morgan wondered in a recent letter to the editor: "Is it not possible for other businesses in the inner city to share in the mayor's incentive plan, or is this plan reserved for the large chains and the downtown retail area?"
The Bloomingdale factor has refocused attention on the plight of small merchants in downtown Washington. Bloomingdale's is not the issue here, however. The more important issue is the Barry administration's credibility.
Consider this from the D.C. Comprehensive Plan: "The expansion of retail activity . . . will probably not mature by market mechanisms alone. The variety sought must be guided, especially for major new retail uses in the retail corridor."
Besides satisfying the city's desire to add a prestigious retailer downtown, Bloomingdale's would be a major draw to the retail core, which should help smaller merchants. In the meantime, however, small retailers deserve the benefit of some creative thinking at the District Building.
If retaining viable small businesses downtown is a desirable goal, why not guide development by offering developers incentives to lease space at less than market rates to large and small retailers? Developers, after all, are being given tax breaks for nothing. Why not offer tax breaks in exchange for providing more affordable retail space?
Bring Bloomingdale's, Bon Marche' or Bonwit Teller. The more the better. But don't overlook the fact that many of the small merchants downtown stuck it out during recessions, urban decay and subway construction. And, while others fled to the suburbs, those who stayed provided valuable goods and services and taxes.