A D.C. developer has a contract to buy the old Hecht Co. department store downtown, a building that has been vacant since 1985, when the retailer moved to its current flagship location five blocks away.

If the sale goes through, the long-stalled development of the site across the street from MCI Center into a huge office, arts and housing complex could start very soon, said developer Samuel G. Rose of Greenebaum & Rose. "You can't afford not to, can you?" he said.

The vacant building and land at Seventh and F streets NW are owned by the Equitable Cos., the big life insurance firm. A spokesman for the firm that manages Equitable's real estate holdings said that, following its usual policy, the company would not comment.

Rose said it will be about a month before his company knows whether it will close on its purchase. "If we finalize the transaction, we would have to move ahead fairly quickly. . . . You could expect something to start next year," he said.

District-based Greenebaum & Rose's largest project has been Union Center Plaza, an office complex near Union Station. Three existing buildings there total almost 1 million square feet, and there's room for two more buildings.

City-approved plans for the Hecht Co. block call for a mix of new construction and preservation to produce about 650,000 square feet of office space, 55 residences and a substantial amount of arts space. The project would be the largest new commercial development in the eastern end of downtown, a neighborhood that is seeing a spurt of construction.

Equitable has had the property up for sale for about a year. At least one serious deal, with an affiliate of District-based CarrAmerica Realty Corp., fell apart before going to contract, according to real estate sources. A Carr spokeswoman declined comment.

Like many other sites in downtown Washington, the Hecht building has a tangled history that reflects the city's changing core.

The building, opened in 1896, used to be part of a cluster of downtown department stores. But those stores suffered as Americans moved to the suburbs and retailers moved to malls. Hecht's two neighbors on Seventh Street, Lansburgh's and Kann's, closed in the early 1970s. The area around Hecht's deteriorated.

In 1980, the store's parent, the May Co., began exploring a move to Metro Center, the part of downtown that was then the focus of redevelopment plans. When the new Hecht's opened in 1985 at 12th and G streets NW, it was the largest free-standing department store built in an American city in 40 years. It's now the only department store downtown -- Garfinckel's closed in 1990 and Woodward & Lothrop in 1995.

The Oliver Carr Cos., the city's most active commercial developer, built the Metro Center store. Soon after, it purchased the old Hecht's site. Carr -- the predecessor of Car\r|America -- also had a stake in the lot across the street, Gallery Place, where MCI Center is now.

Carr completed part of its planned development of the Hecht's block, building a new headquarters at Sixth and E Streets NW for the American Association of Retired Persons in 1991. But the rest of the block, like Gallery Place, got caught in the office market crash of 1989 and 1990.

For years, those blocks where planners and developers had spoken of grand buildings were blighted and scary. In 1991, Carr tried and failed to build a headquarters for public television station WETA on the Hecht site. Equitable, Carr's partner and lender, took control of the site in 1991.

The land and the neighborhood were dormant until sports team owner Abe Pollin began construction on MCI Center. The arena opened in 1997. Since then, other projects have started nearby and more are planned -- there's now very little land west of Sixth Street that's not spoken for. The Hecht site, a vacant hulk right across the street from the front door of the arena, has been an obvious exception.

"The neighborhood's already established itself," Rose said. "If you look around, there are four or five projects in a few blocks. Downtown has certainly gotten as far as the MCI arena."