The sun setting low in the western sky gives the red-brick mass of Hechinger Mall an inner glow, like some out-in-space meteor that has landed at the eastern end of H Street NE.

Its daunting architectural presence isn't the only thing that makes the 10-year-old, 250,000-square-foot center impressive. As Washington's only inner-city shopping plaza, Hechinger Mall has become a retail Goliath of the neighborhood, generating tens of millions of dollars in sales annually and employing hundreds of area workers.

But its success in a neighborhood long suffering from a blighted image has not been enough, it seems.

Since 1986, Hechinger Mall officials have been trying to build Hechinger Mall II, an enclosed mall of 60 stores, complete with movie theaters and restaurants, to complement the more utilitarian original.

Yet in those years, a time of great mall growth in other areas of Washington and its suburbs, the list of big-name retailers that have have turned down a chance to anchor a new mall, a prerequisite for building Hechinger Mall II beside the original mall, is long -- from K mart to Marshalls to Woodward & Lothrop to Hecht's to J.C. Penney.

In a way, the story of Hechinger Mall II mirrors the long and difficult journey it took to get the first Hechinger Mall in place.

"It seems like the exact same thing happened when we built Hechinger Mall -- there was always a resistance to locate in this area and there is still a lack of foresight in seeing what the market here is," said John W. Hechinger Sr., chairman of the hardware chain and one of the main driving forces behind the first mall. "And today, there is still a dearth of retail and still that myopia, despite all we have proved at Hechinger Mall."

'Oasis of Retail Shopping' Build it and they will come.

That is just what John W. Hechinger Sr. thought when he decided to put up the Hechinger Mall at the intersection of Bladensburg and Benning roads and Maryland Avenue NE in the mid-1970s.

Once a railroad yard, the 35-acre site was purchased in the 1920s by Hechinger's father, Sidney, and used for years as a lumberyard, warehouse and corporate headquarters.

When John Hechinger moved many operations to Maryland in 1975, he decided to develop the site and thought a mall was the best option for the neighborhood.

"What we hoped to build was an oasis of retail shopping in a consumer market that was vastly under-served," Hechinger said. "We wanted to make money and at the same time provide for a need."

But not many would risk investing in the once-thriving retail and residential area because of the image that lingered after the April 1968 riots laid waste to H Street and the surrounding area.

Descriptions like "economically depressed," "riot-scarred," "urban blight" and "rife with abandoned buildings" take a long time to fade.

At the time, Hechinger said about the struggle: "I went to all the big developers, the banks, the insurance companies -- investors as far away as California."

After much wrangling, he managed to get the District's first Urban Development Action Grant -- $3.2 million -- to help with the $13 million cost of the mall.

The mall, owned and developed by Hechinger Enterprises, a real estate partnership led by Hechinger, opened on June 12, 1981. The Woodson High School Band played marches and dignitaries at the opening day ceremony included Mayor Marion Barry and then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce Jr.

The mall, which has the advantage of adequate parking, did well from the start, and many D.C. officials and area residents thought it would spur development in the whole H Street corridor.

But that scenario has not happened as H Street struggles to get on its feet, a victim of misguided urban renewal plans, rhetoric from D.C. politicians and the difficulty of reviving a street-front shopping district in even the best of circumstances.

To make the H Street shopping district thrive, more parking and additional financing for small businesses are needed, along with measures to create a safer residential and commercial neighborhood, said William Barrow, executive director of the H Street Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization.

"If the perception {by shoppers and retailers} is that one could never go down there, it gives us one more obstacle to overcome to strengthen the retail core," Barrow said.

The controlled environment of a mall is a little easier to pull off, and the success of Hechinger Mall was partly because of the increasing gentrification of Capitol Hill to the west and the growing number of black middle-class households to the south, north and east, according to many of those interviewed.

Commuters also shop at the mall because of its location at the junction of major thoroughfares, Hechinger said.

Officials of the D.C. government and Hechinger have estimated there are about 300,000 people of varying income levels who live and work in the area near Hechinger Mall.

Mecca for Many Shoppers

A sampling of shoppers one crisp Saturday morning recently found customers at Hechinger Mall from Capitol Hill, Prince George's County and Mount Rainier, among other areas. On that day, and most other weekends, cars packed the parking lot of the mall and people -- mostly blacks with some whites and Asians sprinkled in -- walked from the huge Hechinger hardware store to the Safeway supermarket to many of the 28 other small stores that line the sidewalks of the mall.

The Safeway is one of the largest Safeways on the East Coast and maintains one of the highest sales volumes in the Washington region. The Hechinger store ranks as one of the do-it-yourself retailer's most successful branches. The Athlete's Foot sports shoe store is reported to be the biggest moneymaker of the chain in the area.

According to Hechinger, stores in the shopping center typically do double the retail sales average of $150 per square foot of store space. There is a waiting list for tenants, somewhat atypical for strip-type malls these days.

And because it is a mecca for black shoppers from the area, three small black-owned stores recently opened in the mall. The owners said business is brisk.

"It's been a fantastic opportunity," said Laurence Chandler, co-owner of Graphiti Gems, an art gallery on the upper level of the mall. "Before we moved here we test-marketed all over in Virginia and Maryland before we came to the realization this was a place hungry for stores."

In the three-store cooperative of Pyramid Books, Shabazz Bakery and Timboktu -- which sells African-American clothing, jewelry and other items -- Crystal A. Williams and Nichelle X. Barnett talked about the positive response from the area's black community when the stores opened this past summer on the lower level of the mall.

"They came in and said, 'Where have you been all my life?' " said Williams, a 20-year-old Howard University student, who sells black-culture-oriented books at Pyramid. "They were thrilled to get a good bookstore that served them and even more thrilled it was an African-American-owned one."

The baked goods at Shabazz also were welcomed. "They seem to buy everything they can get their hands on. ... It just makes me so angry to think developers feel there is not a viable community to support needed businesses here," said Barnett, a 23-year-old student at the University of the District of Columbia who works at the bakery.

Both can reel off long lists of the kinds of stores they'd like to see come to Hechinger Mall II and the area -- movie theaters, both discount and upscale clothing stores, toy stores, children's stores and others.

"This is already a place that feels like a community -- a place for African-Americans to feel comfortable shopping at -- and we need more of them," Williams said. She recounted how customers often try to give her their bags when they enter the store, a reflex reaction she attributed to the suspicion blacks sometimes encounter when shopping in some retail areas.

"I just tell them to keep their bags -- that I don't think they are trying to steal," said Williams with a sigh. "I know they appreciate that, a place {where} they can be respected."

Nonexistent Mall

The potential site for Hechinger Mall II, formerly home to a Sears store and a Hechinger store, is a huge empty vacant lot across the street from the bustling Hechinger Mall. On the fence that surrounds it, an old sign announces the future arrival of the nonexistent mall.

The plan is for a large, upscale, indoor mall anchored by two or more major retailers, complete with movie theaters, restaurants and 60 stores, to augment the original Hechinger Mall's offerings. Plans range from a $30 million, 200,000-square-foot mall to a $50 million, 400,000-square-foot structure.

Dress shops, toy stores and restaurants would play off of the first mall's more basic supermarket-hardware store configuration. It would mean that people living in the area wouldn't have to journey out to the suburbs as often to shop.

"We have various-scale-sized plans, but we must first get those anchors," Hechinger said. "And we are so sure of ourselves that we offer concessions beyond those we typically do and we'd hope that the success of Hechinger Mall was a major selling tool."

But this success so far hasn't attracted the major retailers needed to anchor the mall and in the current sluggish retail climate it could mean a long wait.

"If we got a real strong bite, we would hope that we could get help from {the District government}, but due to the trauma citywide, bad propaganda affects us," Hechinger said. "Maybe when the new administration comes in, other positive stuff may follow -- though given the bad financial state of the the District, proactive projects are in doubt."

If the mall is ever built, Hechinger said the large number of new stores would help the H Street NE area, rather than merely siphoning business from H Street. "It would create a magnet that would help everyone," he said.

D.C. Council Nadine Winter, whose constituency includes parts of H Street, agrees. "If we get some stores with a little bit of name recognition, it would break this bad image the area carries as a burden," she said. "We all have to keep pushing to make it happen."

"We are very proud about what we have done at Hechinger Mall, creating a decent and attractive retail presence that has respect for the community ... in a place others thought it could not be done," said Hechinger.

"As for the next step, even though the retail climate has made us reduce our efforts, it will come."

April 1968: Riots, fires and looting after the April 4 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. along the H Street NE corridor damage or destroy 90 buildings and about half the street's stores.

November 1975: Hechinger Co. moves its corporate headquarters to Maryland from the Northeast site that would later become Hechinger Mall. Company officials say they have plans to immediately build the mall.

September 1979: Ground is broken for Hechinger Mall, developed by Hechinger Enterprises, a real estate partnership led by John W. Hechinger Sr. Initial tenants are to include a Hechinger store, a Peoples Drug Store and a Safeway supermarket, along with 700 parking spaces.

June 1981: The two-level Hechinger Mall opens for business at Bladensburg and Benning roads and Maryland Avenue NE. It costs $13.3 million and at the time is the largest inner-city shopping center in the United States.

February 1986: Plans are revealed for Hechinger Mall II, a three-story, 60-store enclosed shopping center. Costs are estimated to be $70 million and stores like K mart and Bradlees are suggested for inclusion, along with a 1,000-space parking deck. Neal Street NE, which cuts through the site, is closed to accommodate construction.

November 1990: Neal Street remains closed, but plans for the mall have not been realized.