The high-flying retailing acts of Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's, supported by a cast of New York-based boutiques and sophisticated shops, will debut soon in Burger Chef country along Montgomery County; heavily traveled Rockville Pike shopping strip.
In the midst of the neon signs and cluttered parking lots of discount stores, auto dealerships, gas stations and motels, the new White Flint Mall is designed to fill merchandising vacuum in the upper-income county with an expensive, top-of-the-line selection in everything from clothes to cut glass.
New York jewelry stores like Black Star are coming. An imported tapestry store from Bethesda is moving over. There will be tobacconists and dispensers of gourmet food, ivy league men's shops and, perhaps, even something like Guccis, the Italian leathergoods store whose handbags and shoes are Fifth Avenue fixtures.
The neighbors of this site now are something else entirely: A Robert Hall clothing store; a Dodge dealership: an Exxon station, a golf driving range and the Rainbow Motor Lodge are among them. It is one of the most concentrated areas of strip development around Washington, a mile and a half from the intersection of the Capital Beltway and I-270 and within 20 minutes' driving time from at least 650,000 consumers.
People in both worlds are curious about how well the radically contrasting styles will coexist.
"We're going to get people from outside the metropolitan area," said Edith Schubert, who will be opening a branch of her China Closet store in the mall. "Baltimore will come. Frederick will come . . . The mall will draw its own people. This is the most sophisticated city - no, the people are among the most sophisticated people in the world.
"There has been a crying need for sophisticated shopping here" she said "Why do people go to New York? Because New York is willing to cater to the sophisticated . . . We have no Fifth Avenue, no Michigan Boulevard. This will be our sophisticated catering enter . . . Everything has to have an image. The mall has set out with an upper-income upper-taste, upper-class image. That's what they intend to be."
The image is such that it didn't really matter that White Flint is inconevient to two planned Metro stops in the area.
The mall's developers "maintained that their clientele would not ride mass transit," said one county planner.
The merchants already in the area are not convinced that the dazzle will rub off on them and some are concerned that with the inceased traffic, it may actually have a negative impact.
White Flint is offering its own credit card for stores within the mall, an element of exclusivity unknown in shopping center development so far.
"I don't know whether they're going to get the exclusive shopper the moneybags and nothing else or the more diversified kind of shopper," said Michael Augustauskas, manager of the nearby Robert Hall clothing store. "I don't know . . . I suppose the shopping center is going to help us."
Charles LaPine, the man in charge of leasing space in the mall - which was developed by Theodore Lerner, developer of Tysons Corner and Wheaton Plaza - believes the mall will pull a more diverse clientele. "I want everything from Kinney's to Gucci's. We should have a place that sells shoes at $19.99 and one that sells them at $89.99. But the majority should be around $39.90.
But he won't say which applicants for space he has turned down in the course of filling about 55 per cent of the space in the mall.
Up the road, Miriam Wheatley, in her camping store with a dirt and gravel front surrounded by Coleman campers, was worried about the potential lure of the mall and its impact on her business.
"The traffic is so bad now that if White Flint is a success, I don't know what it'll be like here."
Jerome Korpeck, attorney for White Flint as well as for county planners, agrees that traffic will increase. Les Cunningham, of the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission said that, at peak hours the area will experience "delays. People may have to wait through a couple of cycles on each light. But probably, everybody won't have to wait . . . people will probably find alternate routes around that worst intersection" (Rockville Pike and Nicholson Lane) he said.
In preparation for the mall's opening early next month, the state and county already have had the developers erect three new traffic lights at the intersection plus a new left-turn lane.
If the imagery was apparently so carefully planned, why was the mall left to project its sophisticated image from behind acres of concrete parking lots with fast-food signs on every horizon?
"They wanted some place thatthey could move a lot of traffic to, they wanted a big site, they wanted to be in Montgomery County and Montgomery County wanted them here," said Al Blumberg, a planning official. A center like White Flint is potentially a multimillion-dollar boost to the county's tax base alone, not to mention the overall economic impact.
After Bloomingdale's originally attempted in 1970 to get a tract of land on Connecticut Avenue in upper Chevy Chase rezoned for its first Washington area store, and met insurmountable opposition from the residents, the county's economic development officials worked with White Flint Associated to find a site in the county.
The main criterion, according to attorney Korpeck, was to find "an area to most effectively serve the Montgomery County area.
"There weren't too many sites on the 270 corridor available, without going into Rockville, which we didn't want to do, or going out to Gaithersburg, which we didn't want to do either."
That left very little in the way of sizable tracts of land. One of those few available was 43 rolling acres south of Nicholson Lane that had once been a golf course but had become a shrub-filled wilderness of mini-bike trails.