In December 1983, Giuseppe Cecchi announced that his company, International Developers Inc., planned to build a world trade center -- "Techworld" -- on a site adjacent to the D.C. Convention Center in downtown Washington.
A year later, after the District agreed to close Eighth Street NW between I and K streets, immediately south of Mount Vernon Square and the Carnegie Library, Cecchi said, "Having obtained the approval for the street closing, I feel we can now realistically target the start of construction for April 1985."
Today, the cleared Techworld site remains an empty, two-block parcel, isolated from its surroundings by a construction fence, but with construction yet to start. In fact, the project still is being designed while proponents and opponents continue negotiating and litigating matters affecting both Techworld and the process by which the city is shaped.
Techworld is a very big project, so big that Cecchi's firm will build it in two or three stages. Representing an investment approaching $300 million in a part of the District unquestionably in need of new investment and revitalization, Techworld would have considerable impact on its immediate neighborhood and the city in general.
But Cecchi looks beyond Washington, claiming that "Techworld will provide a national showcase for the United States' high-tech industry with a window on the world." He envisions the project providing "unparalleled access to the multibillion-dollar federal market and the international export market."
Techworld started seven years ago as a speculative idea, like so many ambitious real estate ventures. In 1979, the convention center was to become a reality, and Cecchi believed that some kind of mixed-use "mart" and hotel complex might be feasible right next door. Indeed, everyone hoped that the new convention center would catalyze many such future, turn-around development efforts in this depressed, fringe area of downtown.
Working quietly between 1979 and 1982, Cecchi's organization assembled most of the land on the block bounded by K, I, Eighth and Ninth streets, on the east side of the center. During this period of general economic recession, downtown development momentum east of 15th Street was barely discernible. Cecchi was correctly anticipating the future.
By the end of 1982, Techworld's program also began to crystalize: a moderately priced convention hotel coupled with a high-technology trade center. The trade center would consist of office and showroom space leased to the "information industry" -- companies dealing with computers, automation and telecommunications -- whose products and services "can be introduced, demonstrated, bought and sold" at a single, centralized location.
But International Developers soon realized that one block was not enough to build the amount of space necessary to achieve critical mass, to make a stand-on-its-own, world-class trade center. Cecchi therefore approached the land owners of the next block east, between Eighth and Seventh streets. Through a joint-venture arrangement, he was able to gain control of most of that block. However, final acquisition was contingent upon merging the two separate blocks into one parcel by closing Eighth Street.
With land options and the economy improving, the next year, 1983, was spent rigorously examining the economic, political and physical feasibility of Techworld.
Arthur D. Little Inc. conducted extensive market studies. Potential tenants and users were contacted. Their responses were favorable and informative, influencing Cecchi to further modify Techworld's initial concept.
International Developers also consulted informally with appropriate city officials to gauge their reactions to the Techworld idea. They, too, responded enthusiastically. Architects were retained to begin preliminary design. By the end of 1983, Techworld looked possible.
In January 1984, International Developers filed its application for the closing of Eighth Street between I and K. It was reviewed administratively and in public hearings by appropriate D.C. government agencies, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the Historic Preservation Review Board and the National Capital Planning Commission. Despite opposition by historic preservation interests, the process went smoothly, and the D.C. City Council enacted street-closing legislation in November 1984.
Meanwhile, in April 1984, Cecchi had applied for zoning amendments. The D.C. Zoning Commission was asked to grant a planned unit development classification to the Techworld site that would have increased overall density. But the zoning commission (and others) did not like the proposed architectural design, and strongly suggested a redesign. In March 1985, after 10 public hearings consuming 52 hours, a completely new design and a higher density were finally approved, although the commission imposed 36 binding conditions.
But Cecchi could not accept some of the zoning conditions, which sought to ensure in perpetuity that Techworld could be occupied only by high-tech trade-mart tenants. A project whose tenancy and leasing flexibility were restricted indefinitely into the future would be too risky to finance, and prospective lenders confirmed this.
Negotiations continued, but the zoning commission insisted on its conditions. Finally, last year, 1 1/2 years after the original zoning application was filed, Cecchi said the firm would withdraw its request for more density and develop the project under existing, matter-of-right zoning.
Simultaneously, the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 of the Federal City also continued to voice opposition to specific aspects of Techworld. They contended that, as designed, Techworld violated the spirit and letter of the L'Enfant plan for Washington.
Despite all the public hearings and negotiating sessions, Cecchi's modified and refined design proposals, while improved over the original, still didn't measure up to the preservation group's aspirations. Moreover, the preservationists had become convinced that laws and regulations were being violated. Even though the real issues were more aesthetic than legalistic, it was time to call out the lawyers.
NEXT: Scrutinizing Techworld's design.