OFFICE SPACE means economic growth, because space attracts workers, who attract stores, restaurants and other enterprises. Three years ago, the vacancy rate for office space in the District hovered between 1 percent and one-tenth of 1 percent, the second or third tightest market in the country. Rents were soaring. Private developers responded by mounting a tremendous building boom. In 1982-84 they will create almost 12 million square feet of new office space, or five times the usual rate, according to realtors. The natural result is a glut. Vacancy rates are now about 10 percent, and new buildings are having trouble finding tenants.
Was there reckless speculation, attracted by an astoundingly low vacancy rate and made all the more irresistible by the 1981 tax changes affecting depreciation and operating losses? Not really. Certainly there was more than a little eagerness on the part of developers and investors, whose decisions are less than scientific, impossible to coordinate and tend to come in binges. The short-run glut is more attributable to other factors, however, like the sluggish recovery and high real interest rates. Many other cities are in even worse shape, according to a Coldwell Banker report. San Diego's vacancy rate is over 23 percent, Atlanta's almost 20, and the national average for major cities is almost 11 percent.
Even if not financially shrewd--and it's too soon to tell--much of the new development is exactly where the mayor's planners would like it to occur: east of 15th Street, between M Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps they jumped the gun, but the developers have given the District an earlier- than-expected foundation for important economic growth. Now that the pioneering efforts are proving unexpectedly painful, is there cause for public concern or government action?
John H. McKoy, director of the city's planning office, points to many ways in which the city has already reduced the cost of particular developments, from air rights to zoning variances. On a case-by- case basis, the city is willing to consider doing more. But, Mr. McKoy observes, the public has already made massive investments to spur private activity downtown. They're called Metro and Convention Center. In the face of a recession, the plateau in federal activity and the fairly immutable laws of supply and demand, there's probably little more that the city can do to help fill those buildings. One exception may be the "adult" entertainment blight, which could be a serious concern of prospective tenants. Is there a way to expedite its departure from areas slated for revitalization?
If the investors were expecting quick leases and heavy cash flows, they will be disappointed. But most will survive because their pockets are deep enough to hold largely vacant buildings for a while. More important, they will ultimately prosper because they've bought stock in what we believe is a blue-chip enterprise: downtown D.C.