That concrete and glass building that looks like a warehouse in downtown Washington is not a mirage. It is the Washington Convention Center and its managers say it will open in January.
But don't bother looking for the promised gleaming new hotels, stores and office buildings across the streets from the convention center in four directions. That indeed is a mirage. They won't be built for months or years to come.
Such is the state of the District of Columbia's long and painstaking effort to lure about 300,000 more free-spending conventioneers from out of town to the nation's capital each year and at the same time reshape and put a new sheen on its aging and deteriorating downtown sector.
The city had hoped that its new convention center would be a magnet for new development. It may still be, but most of the hopes for the immediately surrounding area have yet to be realized. When car enthusiasts arrive in early January for the $98.7-million center's first exhibition, the National Capital Area Auto Show, and thousands of others pour into the facility for the conventions, trade shows and expositions that follow, they will find something akin to a filled doughnut hole without the doughnut.
Inside, the center will have four enormous, high-ceilinged exhibition halls, a closed circuit television system, booths equipped for simultaneous foreign language translations of speeches, a paging system, offices for convention managers, 37 smaller meeting rooms, banquet facilities, permanent concession stands, a large cafeteria and a cocktail lounge for private parties. In short, center officials feel they will be providing everything a trade, professional or industrial group could want.
Outside, however, conventiongoers will find a neighborhood that center manager George W. Demarest Jr. charitably describes as "changing," although most of the change anticipated for the streets surrounding the center is still on developers' drawing boards or in the minds of nearby landowners.
Conventiongoers walking out of the center's main entrance on 9th Street NW will find a parking lot and two gas stations. The view along H Street, just to the south of the center, now consists of a discount wig shop, a boarded-up building with a few wine and beer bottles littering the entrance, a hotel slated for demolition, the city school system's special education offices, a telephone company office, a parking lot, the Chesapeake House restaurant and, on one recent day, a drunk trying to sleep away the night before.
Walk along 11th Street, the center's western side, and they will find the Greyhound bus station, a Burger King, a tuxedo shop, the Accomadation market, and His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Maharishi International University College of Natural Law. The New York Avenue side to the north provides another gas station, a parking garage and a parking lot.
"Convention centers are normally put into areas that need total renovation," Demarest said. "We know that the plan calls for massive improvement in that area.
"We take people on tours," Demarest said. "They can sense things are moving east of 15th Street. Look at it in a year or two."
As it stands now, the type of commercial redevelopment that occurs near the convention center will be determined largely by the private sector and market forces. Unlike some major cities, the District thus far has not exerted a strong influence to guide certain types of development onto specific tracts of land. It also does not own much of the land involved, only 19.4 acres in various tracts out of the 308 acres of usable land in the downtown area.
However, under recommendations drafted earlier this year by the Mayor's Downtown Committee, redevelopers in certain areas would be required to provide a variety of types of development, including retail stores, residential units and facilities for the arts. The plan is now being reviewed by community groups and is subject to City Council approval.
A 1 1/2-year-old hotel incentive zone along Massachusetts Avenue near the convention center already allows hotel developers to increase the amount of floor space they can build beyond that permitted for office buildings or other types of development. Developers have used the incentive zoning twice so far.
For now and the immediate future, however, land owners and developers with large-scale plans for new hotels and office buildings in the convention center area have generally been stymied by a combination of high interest rates and the unwillingness of insurance companies and pension funds, the traditional source for such projects, to commit themselves for long-term funding. At the same time, most remain convinced that eventually the convention center neighborhood will be redeveloped.
Real estate investor Jerome Golub, who with relatives owns the triangular tract to the north of the center that is bounded by New York Avenue and 9th, 10th and K streets, said his group plans to build a combination hotel and office building. But he said high interest rates, which have moderated only in the past few months, have held the group back and stalled its construction plans for at least a year.
"You can get construction money," the 52-year-old Golub said. "It's really the long-term financing that's holding things up. It's a scare period. Everyone's pulled in their horns."
Developer Richard S. Cohen is hoping to build a 500-room hotel along 9th Street, just to the east of the center, but said he and his partners, brother Ronald Cohen and brother-in-law Joel Meisel, are proceeding cautiously and have no immediate construction plans.
Still, he said he is excited about the near completion of the center and prospects for development around it. "They're running a convention center the way it should be run--like a business, not like a government," he said. "If they continue, it will be very successful. Success breeds success."
Joseph Miller, vice president of International Developers Inc., said his firm still has plans for a 600-room hotel, also along 9th Street across from the center. But he said his firm has yet to find a hotel chain to operate the facility and financing has not been arranged for the $75-million-to-$100-million project.
"The markets are so tight that no one investor is willing to put up that kind of money," Miller said. "The convention center still is not a proven product. It's going to take at least three years to prove itself."
While developers in the immediate vicinity of the convention center have moved slowly to start construction, redevelopment of several tracts immediately east of 15th Street has occurred, although many of the offices in the new buildings remain vacant and unrented. John Fondersmith, chief of the city's downtown planning section, said he thinks that as interest rates fall and as the convention center actually opens, more offices and hotels will be built near the center.
When the District government sought final congressional approval for the project in 1978, it produced 41 pledges from developers who said they would build offices, stores, hotels and other facilities in the neighborhoods surrounding the center if it were built. While some of the projects no doubt would have been built even if the center had not been, the idea was to show that tax revenues from the new development in the downtown area would more than offset anticipated operating losses from the center itself.
An examination of the 41 projects shows that a majority have been completed or are under construction. Most of the projects that have not been started, including those on the ring of deteriorating properties around the center, are still planned, though a few have been changed into some other form of development. Of the 41 projects, apparently only one has been scrapped, a planned 500-room hotel rehabilitation project at the Annapolis Towers at 11th and H streets. Golub said his group instead sold the building for $8 million to the maharishi for use as his university.
City officials estimate that by 1986 the 41 projects will produce more than $66 million in new tax revenues for the often cash-strapped city government. In addition, Fondersmith said at least three new hotels are under construction or renovation relatively close to the convention center that were not among the 41 projects pledged to Congress.
"Three years ago no one was willing to build east of 15th Street," Fondersmith said. "Then the dam broke, for two reasons: There was limited space west of 15th and Metro and the convention center made it safe to go ahead.
"Basically we're pleased," he said. "We see downtown beginning to take shape."
Convention center manager Demarest and Austin Kenny, executive vice president of the Washington Convention and Visitors Bureau, both well schooled in the art of civic boosterism, think the center's bookings already presage the facility's long-term success.
A total of 98 conventions, exhibitions, trade shows and other gatherings has been scheduled through 1993, with 42 of them next year. Among them, Demarest said, are several organizations that previously could not stage their conventions and shows in Washington for lack of a large enough exhibition hall.
Such diverse groups as the Food Processing Machinery and Supplies Association, the Christian Booksellers Association, the World of Concrete and InterGlassmetal '83 will be at the center during the next two years. Their leaders say they were attracted to Washington for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many conventioneers have never been here to see the city's monuments, museums and other attractions or would find it convenient to press their legislative wishes on Capitol Hill.
Demarest also hopes that Congress eventually will approve $2.3 million for purchase of 10,000 seats that could be placed on risers to accommodate small sporting events and other gatherings in an amphitheatre-like setting. The House has agreed to the request, but the Senate has not. The appropriation is opposed by Capital Centre owner Abe Pollin, who has lobbied some lawmakers to restrict use of the center to trade shows and conventions.
"The large trade shows historically have a large effect on a community," Demarest said. "The whole bottom line is to bring in new dollars that are brought here and stay here." He said that the initial bookings show that because of Washington's attractions the typical out-of-town conventioneer plans to stay four days, compared to the normal 3.2 days other convention managers expect.
For the last two years, Kenny has tried to make certain that convention managers for a wide variety of groups are aware not only of the city's attractions but also of the convention center's progress.
At one point, he mailed out 500 toy cement trucks to the convention managers with the message, "We're pouring concrete." Later he sent out rulers with the inscription, "The Washington Convention Center will measure up." Now he has an eight-minute slide show on Washington with nine projectors flashing favorable images of historical Washington, current-day Washington and the center itself.
The result, he predicted, will be an extra 110,000 out-of-town convention visitors next year beyond the 850,000 to 900,000 who normally come here. By 1984, he said the figure will climb to an additional 220,000 and, by the end of the 1980s, to between 275,000 and 300,000.
City officials promoting the construction of the convention center in the late 1970s often estimated that it would bring in an additional 325,000 visitors annually. But Demarest said that figure is too optimistic.
"It would take a perfect year to match that," he said. "Thirty large shows a year is pretty close to capacity because of the move-in and move-out time" for each group.
"It's going to be into the late '80s before we accomplish some things," Kenny said. "There are a lot of association executives here and they saw our misfires in getting the center under construction . We had to get going and get it up before they were interested. And now many of them are booked elsewhere for a few years."
Whatever the number of new visitors, city and center officials expect the facility to be a boon to certain segments of the local economy. Using past Washington conventions as a yardstick, the out-of-town visitors will spend an average of $500 each before they leave.
It is not only the hotels, restaurants and souvenir vendors who are looking forward to the opening of the convention center.
So is Sean Taylor, the day manager at the Chesapeake House, a bar and restaurant across H Street from the center that features nude female dancers during the lunch hour and male go-go dancers at night.
"We want the lunch crowd," Taylor said the other day as an unclothed young woman gyrated on the restaurant's stage to a loud disco beat. "Let's face it; any conventioneer wants to have fun. They get their business done in two hours. People are just not inclined to behave when they're on their own, when they don't have to worry about Mommy and the kids." CAPTION: Picture 1, Boarded-up stores and buildings slated for demolition are part of the panorama in front of the main doors of the new convention center, By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post; Map, The $97-plus million convention center will be ready in January but the surrounding neighborhood is not. Map shows where the redevelopment was planned, and provides explanations from the property owners as to why they are behind schedule. By Dave Cook -- The Washington Post