- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

High-tech jobs part of revival

An aggressive business development group, a better-regarded D.C. government and generally good economic times appear to be just what downtown needed.

After suffering years of neglect and population decline, development is gradually injecting new life into the business district.

"What we have seen over the past year in downtown is an ongoing transition upward of the neighborhood, and we see it in almost every segment of the market," said Seamus Hudson, spokesman for the Downtown Business Improvement District (DBID), a group of commercial building owners committed to improving and marketing the area. "The city as a whole is doing well, but downtown is doing better than the rest of the city."

The DBID covers a 110-block area in the city's Northwest quadrant bounded on the north by Massachusetts Avenue, on the south at Constitution Avenue, on the west at 15th Street and on the East at 2nd Street.

It doesn't include the White House area or the National Mall.

Several indicators point to a downtown revival: Commercial space vacancy rates are much lower, retail is moving in, and jobs are being created.

In 1996, 11.5 percent of the 67 million square feet commercial space in downtown was vacant. By last year, that percentage dropped to just 5.8 percent.

In 1999, there were 245 restaurants downtown, 170 of which offered sit-down dining. Twenty four restaurants have opened in the last two years.

Downtown is also home to 764 retail stores, including Chanel, Ann Taylor, Filene's Basement, the Discovery Channel Flagship store, Hecht's department store and Banana Republic. Downtown stores combined for $306 million of business in 1998, according to DBID.

The Primo Cappuccino coffeehouse chain, for example, opened its latest location at 14th and G streets three months ago.

Also, three new hotels have come to downtown: Two Courtyard Marriotts, on 9th and F streets and at Thomas Circle, and a Hilton Garden Inn, on 14th between H and I streets.

Last year, the District enjoyed positive job growth for the first time since the 1980s. Businesses created more than 6,000 new jobs, while just 2,500 jobs were lost to downsizing by the D.C. and U.S. governments, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Most of those new jobs are in Downtown, said Charles W. McMillion, chief economist for MBG, a D.C.-based business information firm.

"Lots of people are doing lots of things, so the Downtown area is doing extremely well," he said. "We are attracting high-tech and professional jobs … and it's important that retail is doing better; broadly, most industries are doing better."

Some of the improvements are being attributed to improvements in the government now administered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He took office in January 1999 with a promise to improve a D.C. government that has struggled to provide basic services and remain financially solvent.

A major challenge facing Downtown revival is that the dynamics of the area are so much different from traditional shopping areas such as malls, plazas and other popular hangout spots.

Grace Hailer, store manager of Ann Taylor across the street from Primo Cappuccino, has worked for the company for four years, at a store in Georgetown.

"It's much different here," she said. "We have a huge lunch crowd, between 12 and 3 p.m., and then it picks up again between 5 and 7 p.m."

At the Ann Taylor store in Georgetown, on the other hand, most of the business was done in the evenings and on weekends. The Downtown store is closed evenings, and on weekends business is "steady, but not busy," Ms. Hailer said.

The restaurant business follows a similar pattern.

Phil Jacobson, general manager of the Mark restaurant on D and 7th streets, used to work at J. Paul's in Georgetown before moving Downtown.

"It's my first time on this end of town, and it's a very different clientele," he said. "You've got government employees, Capitol Hill, all the politicians."

The Mark opened in April 1998. Mark Kaufman, the owner of the building, was looking to lease the space, but, when he realized how many people wanted the space, he figured he might as well start a restaurant himself.

Today, the casual, fine-dining restaurant has about 30 percent more business at dinner time than last year, and 10 to 15 percent more at lunch time, Mr. Jacobson estimates.

"The hardest part about being on 7th Street was, and continues to be, and I don't want to say 'in transition,' but that it's still growing," he said. "So many people came after the MCI opened they just jumped the bandwagon to get here, and now everybody is playing catch up. Business is doing well because all the other businesses are coming here."

He added: "The restaurant every day just gets better and better. For a year and a half, I have watched the sales grow."

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