From the Begg Inc. office in Georgetown's new Prospect Place complex, real estate agent Ted Gartner can look out on a quiet brick courtyard, lined with glass-walled shops.
Porches and porticos, bridges and balconies link the five small buildings, creating an oasis for shoppers of Wisconsin Avenue and M streets NW, barely a block away.
Just as the architects envisioned, tourists wander into the shaded courtyard and linger as they look in the storefronts.
But all they find in most of the windows are bare concrete floors, heating ducts and Begg's "For Rent" signs. The outdoor cafe planned for the courtyard is nowhere to be seen, the building for a two-story restaurant and bar is still raw space, and 28 of the 36 stores in Prospect Place are vacant. b
"I think they're waiting for the economic situation to improve," says Gartner. "The tenants who are coming in want to open in the fall, so they can start off with a positive cash flow and the big season."
It's likely to take a lot more than the seasonal surge in sales to fill up Prospect Place's vacancies. The commercial real estate market in Georgetown is saturated with empty stores.
Long the most successful shopping area in the Washington region -- with annual retail sales per square foot running $200 and up -- Georgetown commercial property has not escaped the current real estate recession.From one end of Georgetown to the other, there are windows plastered with brown paper and the phone numbers of brokers.
Nine of the 10 stores are vacant in the Plaza Shops adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel at the eastern end of M Street. None of the retail space is occupied in the Donahoe Companies' residential and shopping complex at the other end of Georgetown's main street.
In between there are vacancies at Prospect Place, at the Dodge Center at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue and at a number of other locations.
Hundreds of thousands of square feet of additional retail space are under construction in the neighborhood, threatening to create a backlog of stores that could take months or years to lease.
Retail leasing activity is slow all over the Washington metropolitan area, brokers reluctantly acknowledge. An aggressive sales campaign is belatedly bringing new tenants to Mazza Gallerie at Wisconsin and Western avenues, but to the north in Montgomery County, White Flint has several vacancies and so do most other regional malls.
High interest rates and low retail sales are to blame. While the prime rate has come back down to 11 percent, most merchants must pay more than that for the money they need to finance inventory and fixtures for new stores. Profit margins are pinched enough by poor sales without the added pressure of 14 or 15 percent financing charges.
Many retailers are reluctant to open new stores in the midst of a recession, when even the excitement of a grand opening cannot produce enough volume to make a new store immediately profitable. Rather than open the doors now and carry an underproductive store until business gets better, they'll wait till the economy improves.
As Begg's Gartner points out, the back-to-school and Christmas seasons may provide enough stimulus for some of the prospective proprietors of Prospect Place. A lease has been signed on the restaurant site, he pointed out, but August is no time to open an eatery in Washington.
A few blocks away on M Street, a new Hamburger Hamlet plans to open this fall and the long-vacant market building in Georgetown will be back in business in a few weeks.
A number of fall openings also are anticipated at Fair Oaks, the 200-store enclosed mall in Fairfax County that opened last week with only its anchor department stores and barely a dozen small shops operating.
Fair Oaks' developer, the Taubman Co., one of America's master mall builders, can afford to budget the carrying costs of a multi-million-dollar project that may take years to mature to profitability. But for smaller landlords, the costs can be crushing, since developers must pay the same high interest rates that their tenants are avoiding.
Taubman, too, is experienced at slowly filling up a vast shopping center with the kind of tenants it wants and avoiding the negative reputation that vacant stores can give a retail complex. The no-stores stigma has plagued Mazza Gallerie since the day it opened.
For Georgetown, the critical point is not this fall, but a year from now when the mammoth Georgetown Park project opens its five floors of stores at Wisconsin and M. A joint venture of Western Development Corp. and Donohoe, the main structure of Georgetown Park is now slowly emerging from the bedrock below the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
Conran's is already open in the first phase of Georgetown Park and Garfinckel's has signed on as the major tenant in the building now under construction. A dozen other smaller tenants are already signed up.
As an enclosed mall with underground parking, Georgetown Park will probably siphon off the cream of the new retailers in the neighborhood, even though rents in the project are expected to be among the highest in the city.