The owner of the old Woodward & Lothrop department store building downtown said three large middle-market retailers are negotiating for big chunks of space there, in what the city says is a major step in getting large retailers to enter the District.

The three are home furnishings store Crate & Barrel, discount clothing chain Ross Dress For Less and DSW Shoe Warehouse.

Building owner Douglas Development Corp. said Newark, Calif.-based Ross Stores Inc. and DSW parent Retail Ventures Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, had signed letters of intent for 10-year leases, the last step before negotiating terms. Crate & Barrel's parent, Euromarket Designs Inc. in Northbrook, Ill., had indicated it would sign a letter, too, said Douglas Jemal, president of Douglas Development.

The three retailers would take about 125,000 of the 145,000 square feet of retail space in the grand old building at 11th and F streets NW, Jemal said. They would join hip Swedish clothier Hennes & Mauritz, which opened last year. Signing all three would mean the building's three floors of retail space would be almost fully leased.

The three stores would be the biggest catches for the District since the Container Store opened in March and consumer-electronics giant Best Buy opened last year in the Tenleytown neighborhood far up Wisconsin Avenue.

The city is anxious to lure more retailers leery of expensive space, sparse parking for customers, the paucity of spaces to unload delivery trucks and what some say is a time-consuming city approval process.

And the city is especially anxious to revive downtown, once home to big department stores that have since closed or moved to the suburbs, by bringing in these "big-box" retailers whose suburban stores ring the District.

The three stores coming in appeal to the same middle-class customers that Woodward & Lothrop once did.

The city is "trying to seed a retail district," said Richard Lake, a principal at Roadside Development, which landed Container Store and Best Buy. "It's a lot easier to seed a retail district with promotional retail [retailers that offer discounts and sales] than high-end retailers because [shoppers] will go out of their way for a bargain. If these stores are successful, you'll find that other retailers will want to be next to them."

Crate & Barrel would take about 25,000 square feet and DSW and Ross 50,000 each, according to the developer. Crate & Barrel said it has not yet signed a letter of commitment. DSW said it's negotiating for 30,000 square feet, not 50,000, and would open this year. Ross did not return calls.

"We find the market very appealing," said Crate & Barrel spokeswoman Lisa Ridolfi. "We have stores in the [area] and they're very successful." The chain has six stores in the D.C. suburbs and one inside the city limits on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

DSW Warehouse has 11 stores in the D.C. suburbs and wanted to come downtown but said it has been difficult to find a large site for its "big-box" store.

Jemal bought the Woodies building in 1999 for $28.2 million from the Washington Opera after it abandoned plans to convert it to an opera house. The building closed in 1995 after Woodies filed for bankruptcy protection.

He renovated the 500,000 square feet last year into offices upstairs and retail space on the lower floors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took about 50,000 square feet of the offices; the rest of the 350,000 square feet of offices are empty.

The old downtown Woodies may house Crate & Barrel, Ross Dress For Less, and DSW Shoe Warehouse stores.