Cities like New York, Paris, London and Milan are known as fashion-forward, high-style shopping meccas. Mention Washington, D.C., however, and retail doesn't generally come to mind. The city has typically been known as a government town packed with tourist attractions, and, in recent years, plagued by high crime.

The landscape of D.C. is undergoing major changes - at least according to several economic development agencies in the area. Along with Washington mayor Anthony Williams, a handful of these agencies attended last year's ICSC Spring Convention. They also plan to participate in future ICSC events.

In addition to attracting more retail and other businesses, the economic development agencies intend to generally clean up D.C. and the surrounding areas.

Downtown on the docket The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID), a private, nonprofit corporation, opened in November 1997 following approval of the Business Improvement Districts Act of 1996. "The area we cover is 110 square blocks," says Seamus Houston, director of marketing and communications for the Downtown D.C. BID. "In the area, we have 67 million sq. ft. of commercial property."

In its first year of operation, the Downtown BID focused on cleaning up the neighborhood and making it safer. The BID employs downtown safety and maintenance teams (known as SAMs) to patrol the area, sweep public walkways, power-wash streets and provide direction for visitors. Downtown SAMs wear red uniforms and patrol daily on foot and by bicycle. They are trained to respond to emergency situations and serve as the eyes and ears of local law-enforcement.

Now that SAMs are in place, and the downtown area has been cleaned up considerably, the BID is focusing its efforts on physical improvements such as signage and attractive sidewalks; ensuring accessible transportation; marketing the area to businesses; and helping homeless people get off the streets.

"We have an area called F Street that used to serve as the primary retail street in D.C.," Houston says. "Five department stores were there. But during the 1968 riots, the stores were burned down. That event scared America, and retailers across the country went out to the suburbs. In D.C., they never came back."

It wasn't until recently that retailers started to move back to the area, spurred by the development of MCI Center, a sports, entertainment and retail complex. "The property on F Street had been left for so long," Houston says, adding that between 6th and 15th streets there is now $590 million worth of investing in either new or renovated buildings. The amount of construction now has been unequalled in the city's past, he says.

In the past two years, 20 new restaurants have opened downtown, as well as Barnes & Noble, and a soon-to-be-completed ESPN Zone. The influx of businesses to the area as well as the decrease in crime will likely draw in more retailers. Crime downtown has dropped more than 50% in the past two years, according to Houston.

"The entire stage has been set for retailers to come," Houston says. "Contrary to the idea that Washington, D.C., is only a government town, in 1999 the private sector overtook the government as the primary employer. There are a lot of high-tech businesses here, and there are a significant amount of lawyers. We have an incredibly affluent customer base."

Golden triangle shines While the Downtown BID spent the better part of its first two years in operation cleaning up the city, another organization in Washington faced a different scenario. The Golden Triangle Business Improvement District was able to work quickly in beautifying the Golden Triangle area after the BID was established in 1998.

"The Golden Triangle, which used to be called the Gold Coast, encompasses 38 blocks, with Connecticut Avenue running through the entire district," says Patricia Thornton, director of programming and development for the Golden Triangle BID. "Our district begins where the Downtown BID ends (geographically). Many BIDs have to spend the first two or three years just cleaning up the area. In this business district, there weren't as many problems to begin with."

The Golden Triangle BID offers services similar to the Downtown BID, including an ambassador program. More than 400 retailers and restaurants operate in the Golden Triangle BID, which is considered the retail hub of D.C., Thornton adds. Still, many visitors and residents either don't know about the area or are unaware of what it has to offer. "We're hoping to help people see that we have the best restaurants and the best retail," Thornton says.

Thornton and her staff have developed guides and maps of the area that are given out to building concierge services, hotel associations and apartment management associations. The retail guide is distributed in the local business journal, and advertisements are placed in the paper to announce new businesses in the area.

While the Golden Triangle area was fairly clean when the BID opened, the district has improved so much that landlords are competing for tenants, Thornton says. "Companies are retrofitting older buildings; lobbies and common areas are being renovated," she says. "The buildings have concierge representatives that offer services, such as taking (building employees') clothes to the dry cleaner."

Sharing knowledge The Golden Triangle and other BIDs make a point to know properties and property managers in their districts. For instance, Thornton is starting a seminar series for landlords, and plans to meet with brokers as well as concierge services in the area. Because the BIDs have such thorough knowledge of the area, another recent initiative in D.C. looks to them for assistance.

"If we hit a prospect who wants to come downtown, we go to the BID," says Norman Carter, who is on the board of directors for the Washington, D.C. Marketing Center. "They really know their properties. They know the story behind the story."

The Marketing Center's mission is to assist the Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce in marketing the city to businesses.

"The Marketing Center has to work very closely with the city," Carter says. "We develop a prospect until it is ready and then we take it to the city. For instance, if a retailer is interested in coming to D.C. but doesn't want everyone to know about it yet, we will help the retailer look at the sites, see if we can help get financing, and educate the retailer about the area."

Representatives from the Marketing Center also attended the ICSC conference in New York last November and plan to attend other shows. Currently, the Marketing Center is promoting an area called East of the Anacostia River, where two new retail centers are in the works.

Located about 10 minutes from The Mall, the area's retail needs have been underserved, Carter says. One of the biggest challenges of the Marketing Center, he adds, is that retailers are wary of entering into unfamiliar territory.

"Our goal is letting retailers know there is opportunity in the District." he says. "The retailers are not risk-takers. I had no idea how conservative they are."

Houston adds that D.C.'s retail renaissance is in the earliest stages, and says residential development will aid the process. The abundance of high-tech companies in Washington - which is often referred to as "Silicon East" - has brought more young "techies" with high incomes to the city, Carter adds.

While more people may be moving downtown, many still live in the suburbs. Development agencies in D.C.'s surrounding areas also are actively pursuing retail. For instance, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership Inc., a public-private partnership in the city of Alexandria, Va., has gone on marketing missions to New York City for two years to meet with retailers.

"Shopping is one of the most important sectors of our business industry in Alexandria," says Paula Riley, executive director of the Partnership. "We want high-quality retail for Alexandria."

Alexandria has Landmark Mall, as well as a growing retail corridor along King Street. As in D.C., the area abounds with high-tech companies, and the Partnership plans to attract even more technology firms to the area. The economic revival in Washington is helping business in Alexandria, Riley says.

Another organization, Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., in Maryland, is also benefiting from the changes in Washington. "If the district prospers, we feel the additional positive effects from that prosperity," says Joe James, president and CEO of the EDC. The county is gaining more attention, he says.

With at least three key retail developments beginning construction in 2000, Prince George's County EDC aims to attract more upscale retailers and chain restaurants.

Prince George's County has the second largest concentration of high-tech companies and high-tech jobs in the state of Maryland, James says, adding that the techies demand quality retail.

"To keep high-tech businesses in a locality, you have to establish and maintain a certain high-level quality-of-life environment," he says. "The primarily young, high-tech employees want to live in a clean, safe and efficient community. This includes having convenient access to retail."

With a far-reaching system of public transportation, suburbanites have access to D.C. and all it can offer.

"Downtown shopping is hot again," says Houston of the Downtown BID. "Let's face it, traffic in the suburbs is worse than downtown. If you come in on the subway, you can go to a theater, go to a restaurant, walk around and do some quick shopping. That's an experience. That is what urban life is all about. People are getting excited about that adventure."