Woodward and Lothrop Inc. is scheduled to go to court today to try to halt -- at least temporarily -- a proposed $20 million to $25 million expansion of the Wheaton Plaza shopping mall in Montgomery County.
Woodies said it wants to make sure the changes don't damage its store there, but Wheaton Plaza officials think the department-store chain has an ulterior motive: to keep out one of the new tenants, its archrival, The Hecht Co.
Woodies' effort to delay construction represents "a poorly disguised attempt to prevent a successful competing department store -- Hecht's -- from locating at Wheaton Plaza," lawyers for the plaza charged in legal documents filed last month in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Woodies Chairman Edwin K. Hoffman denied the charge, however. "We have no problems with Hecht's coming to Wheaton Plaza," Hoffman said.
The mall "needs another good store. We're merely asking what's going to happen with the shopping center. It affects our store," Hoffman added.
"We feel we have a right to know what's going to happen to our store. We want to delay construction until we know," he said.
In addition, in recent court filings, Woodies Vice Chairman Robert J. Mulligan noted that Woodies assisted Hecht's with its negotiations to enter Wheaton Plaza.
Mulligan said that that Woodies and Hecht's previously have cooperated on other mall expansions, and Woodies lawyers said efforts to portray the dispute as one over competition is inaccurate.
This series of increasingly sharp charges and countercharges arose after Wheaton Plaza officials told Woodies last fall about their plans to expand the mall, including the addition of 65,000 square feet of mall shops, the renovation of parking areas and the construction of a new Hecht's store.
The mall, one of the area's major retail centers, already comprises more than 800,000 square feet of office and retail space located in Montgomery County near an extension of the Metrorail system that is under construction.
The main issue in the dispute is whether Woodies, a tenant of the mall since its opening in 1960, has the right to review and approve the expansion of the plaza.
Woodies says it does, citing terms of an amended lease it signed with the mall in 1959.
That lease identified the size and location of existing buildings and parking lots, as well as possible additional structures.
As part of the lease, Woodies says it has the right to approve any major deviation from this original plan -- a clause that retailers say used to be common in the industry.
Last fall, soon after Woodies was told of the planned expansion, company lawyers asked for more information, including the exact location of the new buildings and parking lots, and details on the parking places that would be displaced by the new construction.
In their court papers, Woodies lawyers contended that not only have they not been given adequate information, but also they have not been given assurances that the excavation would be held off until they had a chance to review the information.
Nonetheless, they said that from what they have been told, the proposed expansion presents a host of problems, including disrupting traffic flow around the plaza, reducing public parking and obstructing the view of Woodies' store.
The expansion will "severely diminish or destroy the customer good will Woodies has developed and the investment of time and money it has made in the store," Woodies charged.
It asked the court to issue an injunction to delay the expansion, and a hearing on that request is scheduled for today.
But while Wheaton Plaza lawyers said they have tried to cooperate with Woodies' requests, they told the court that Woodies does not have the right of approval it is claiming. For one thing, they said, the proposed expansion does not constitute a major deviation from the original site plan.
Lawyers for the plaza also pointed to a consent order Woodies signed with the Federal Trade Commission in 1974 as a result of a dispute at the Tysons Corner shopping center. Wheaton Plaza argued that the order specifically prevents Woodies from carrying out any agreement granting it the right to exclude another tenant from any shopping center in which Woodies has leased space.
Although Woodies' lawyers say the FTC order does not preclude the company's current action, Wheaton Plaza's attorneys argued in their court pleadings that Woodies is prohibited from "directly or indirectly" seeking to bar Hecht's occupancy in Wheaton Plaza.
"Woodies' uproar over changes in traffic flows and a minor, temporary displacement of parking spaces is a smokescreen for its true objective: the inhibition of competition at the center," Wheaton Plaza told the court.
In an escalation of the legal war of words, Woodies' lawyers -- from the Washington office of Hogan & Hartson -- filed a lengthy rebuttal on Friday, calling Wheaton Plaza's assertion that Woodies is trying to keep Hecht's out "both scandalous and false."
Wheaton Plaza officials "fail, or refuse to recognize, that everyone, Hecht's included, stands to lose from an expansion of Wheaton Plaza that is poorly planned and results in the creation of an unpleasant, congested or inefficient shopping environment," Woodies said.
The company's concerns "have nothing to do with the fact that Hecht's will occupy one of the proposed new stores."
In the meantime, Woodies' legal attack on the proposed expansion has not significantly threatened the planned April 1987 completion of the mall or Hecht's scheduled opening for the fall of that year, officials said. William W. Cahill Jr., an attorney for Wheaton Plaza, said the mall still is awaiting an excavation permit from Montgomery County, which it hopes to get soon.
"At the moment we cannot do anything regardless of the Woodies action," Cahill said last week.
But, he added, "If there is any real delay -- by this I mean a few weeks -- obviously there's going to be a serious question about there being an opening by Christmas of 1987.
"In my view, they're out to stop it, and if they can't stop it, then delay it," Cahill said, suggesting that it would be to Woodies' advantage to have Hecht's out during the lucrative Christmas season.
Meanwhile, J. Warren Harris, Hecht's chairman, said things still are on track for his store's Wheaton Plaza opening, with construction scheduled to begin this fall.
"That's right on schedule, and that's not affected by the injunction and so forth," Harris said.
"As long as we can start sometime this fall, we should be able to open up by the fall of 1987," he said.
Referring to Woodies' problems with Wheaton Plaza, he added, "I would not anticipate that they have any problem with us coming in. Usually, additional stores make the center stronger."