"We're open for business," D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently told a group of retail executives attending this year's meeting of the International Council of Shopping Center Developers in Las Vegas.
Several retailers who attended said they were impressed by Williams. While they may have been impressed, they apparently still aren't convinced that the District is in fact open for business.
And little wonder. D.C. officials, developers and housing activists have yet to agree on what is an appropriate mix of office, housing and retail space in a revitalized downtown or, for that matter, on where to build it.
Understandably, some retailers are reluctant to make a commitment as long as that climate of uncertainty exists in the District. So, without closing the door to any opportunity that might arise and without offending Williams, they basically said: Don't call us, we'll call you.
"We're exploring the market," said one retail executive who attended the meeting.
"We are exploring opportunities," said another.
But retailers have been saying such things about the District for some time now. A few actually expressed interest in opening stores here several years ago but changed their minds, citing the prohibitive costs of leasing space in buildings downtown.
Local developers certainly didn't help matters by opposing zoning amendments intended to increase the amount of retail space in the downtown shopping district. Many of the developers are even more strongly opposed to the idea of building more housing downtown.
Several retailers have nonetheless told District officials that the city must have more housing close to downtown in order to attract key retailers.
The District may be open for business, as Williams asserted, but government, business and community leaders continue to send mixed signals about the so-called living downtown that everyone talks about.
A classic case in point is the seemingly endless controversy surrounding the former Woodward & Lothrop department store site.
Four years after Woodies filed for bankruptcy protection, the landmark building remains vacant and continues to be the subject of a bitter debate over how it should be redeveloped.
Now that the Washington Opera has sold the building, after abandoning plans to convert it to an opera house, housing activists have renewed their campaign for it to be developed primarily as a residential complex.
That's not exactly what developer Douglas Jemal has in mind. Thus the dispute over the Woodies building could wind up in court, just as the bitter confrontation over plans to redevelop the former Garfinckel's store building did several years ago.
Jemal, who bought the Woodies building from the Washington Opera for $28.4 million earlier this year, is seeking the right to redevelop most of the 10 floors as office space. He plans also to add four floors of residential space to the roof of the existing structure and lease the lower three levels as retail space.
The zoning commission has agreed to consider Jemal's request for a zoning change in September, after rejecting a similar request for a hearing in July.
But until then, Jemal said, "I'm keeping my options open. If I get a tenant that wants to lease the retail space [before the hearing] then I'm going to pull the trigger."
Earlier, Jemal had asked the zoning commission to send a message to "the many national retail tenants who have expressed a desire to locate" in the Woodies building.
But in a strongly worded statement opposing Jemal's earlier request for a hearing, a leading activist group, the Downtown Housing Now Committee, countered: "The only message [Jemal] is asking you for is to quickly increase the value of his investment in the building by permitting 48 percent of it to be used for offices."
Jemal contends, however, that some aspects of the building's structure make it extremely difficult to convert most of the space to residential units.
But there is more here than meets the eye. Housing activists are still smarting over the Washington Opera's decision to sell the property to Jemal despite the fact that three other bidders promised to convert all but the three lower floors to housing.
"Perhaps if Mr. Jemal persists in stampeding the city into a fast decision, someone should determine why the Opera Society chose to pass up the opportunity to make another $1.5 million by merely waiting 45 additional days," the Downtown Housing Now Committee suggested.
That aside, adding 120 residential units, as Jemal proposes, seems reasonable enough. That's 120 more than redevelopers of the former Garfinckel's building added. And it's 120 more than are available in the blighted former Hecht department store building still for sale after all these years.
But the real test for Jemal is getting retailers to lease space in the building. He says he's begun discussions with prospective tenants, so we'll soon know what effect the controversy surrounding his plans will have on retailers.
More important, perhaps, we should get some idea as to whether they're prepared to view Jemal's plan for the Woodies building as a sign that the city is not only open for business but that it's starting to get its downtown redevelopment act together.