Hechinger Enterprises' plan to build a regional shopping mall in Northeast Washington probably is the most significant announcement of a commercial development in the District in the past 20 years.
Certainly, bigger commercial projects have been built in the redevelopment boom that has taken place in much of Washington during that time. However, nothing of the sort has occurred in the so-called underserved areas of the District. Those communities have been bypassed in favor of what developers perceive as "safer" locations for investment in commercial projects.
Three major shopping malls and numerous retail arcades in mixed-use developments have been built in the District within the past 10 years. All of them are in downtown or in the highly affluent corridor between Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues. So-called "development opportunity areas" that city officials have identified in underserved areas largely have been ignored by the private sector.
That is one of the more obvious reasons why the Hechinger proposal to build a $70 million mall at the gateway to the H Street NE corridor is so significant. Less obvious, but equally significant, are the ramifications for lenders, particularly D.C. banks. Plans for the mall could provide a litmus test for the credibility of local banks.
Hechinger Enterprises plans to build the 60-store mall across the street from the smaller, but highly successful Hechinger Mall, which opened in 1981. The new mall, like the existing one, would be developed as a privately owned project and would not be part of the publicly held Hechinger Co. home-improvement chain.
According to a recent Washington Post story on plans to build the new mall, John Hechinger, co-chairman of Hechinger Co., said he has talked with bankers and local and federal officials but has received no commitment for financing the project. Actually, the reference to financing was "a bit premature," Hechinger explained yesterday. Architects haven't yet completed plans for the mall, and Hechinger needs the necessary approvals from the city as well as commitments from prospective tenants before it can obtain a commitment for financing.
Preliminary discussions of the plans have centered on various sources of financing, including federal funds such as Urban Development Action Grants (UDAGs), which Hechinger used to help finance its first mall. Kwasi Holman, director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development, insists that the city "must seek appropriate government financing for this type of development."
Retail trade, although stronger in recent years, declined sharply in the District after 1968. The exodus of retailers from downtown and neighborhood centers to the suburbs, in the wake of civil disorders and the accelerated development of big regional suburban shopping malls over the last decade, severely hurt the growth of retail trade in the District. Although retail trade has been on the upswing in the revitalized downtown area, the decline in commercial services in many parts of the District has been a particularly serious issue, according to city officials. The District continues to lose revenue because many residents find it more convenient to shop in nearby suburban centers.
Thus, the District has a strong interest in pursuing financing for the new mall. Obtaining financing shouldn't be difficult, however, given recent statements by D.C. bankers who promised to make more funds available for investment in the District.
Local bankers, in a determined but unsuccessful bid to bar early entry in the District by money-center banks, vigorously denied allegations that D.C. banks routinely have refused to make loans in certain areas of the city. Early in the debate on an interstate banking bill for the District, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry observed that the only viable source of funds for economic development is the money-center banks.
As part of a concerted effort to prove the mayor and other city officials wrong, several local bank officials promised to be more responsive to the District's economic development needs. One local bank executive even challenged District government officials to participate in a concerted effort to identify viable lending opportunities in the city.
Hechinger Enterprises has confirmed its intention to proceed with an unquestionably viable lending opportunity outside of downtown Washington. The success of Hechinger Mall I in a previously neglected area of the city, recent extensive marketing and demographic studies, and the involvement of reputable and astute members of the local business community all but guarantee the viability of the proposed Hechinger Mall II.
If D.C. bankers have any interest in maintaining their credibility, they will go to John Hechinger before he comes to them.