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Watching developer Doug Jemal in action yesterday peaked my curiosity about him. I attended an auction, in which he came away with the winning bid, not to mention a silent prize for the most memorable attire. Amongst a sea of wool coats, stiff collared shirts, delicate eye wear, and firmly grasped leather folders, Jemal wore a plaid shirt—-a red, blue and green mix, if I’m remembering correctly—-and fancy boots. He would have looked more at home at the Houston rodeo than a downtown law office.

Last I heard, Jemal’s been hard at work on a project that would transform the Mount Vernon Square area. Yesterday, the Downtown Business Improvement District sent out a press release with the usual recap of activities. Here’s a bit about what Jemal’s up to:

Square Deal
It’s no secret that Douglas Development (702 H Street) has accumulated several dozen properties since the early ‘90s in the heart of Mount Vernon Triangle. Little by little, plans for how it will develop holdings in the area bound by the 600 blocks of New York Avenue and L Street and the 1000 blocks of 6th and 7th Streets, are emerging. The company has proposed to transform the area into a high-energy retail mix with offices, sidewalk cafes and themed entertainment—all just a block or two east of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (801 Mount Vernon Place). Creating much buzz: the prospect of a phenomenal entertainment anchor with an entrance on 7th and K Streets. The House of Blues? Douglas Development is mum.

However, this much is known: such a sweeping transformation would profoundly benefit Downtown, connecting the vibrant and inviting gathering places along 7th Street—from Penn Quarter to Chinatown to Mount Vernon Triangle—and helping create a critical mass of shopper’s goods retail, the one sector of the Downtown economy that has yet to achieve regional success. Currently, a total of 815,000 square feet of retail space is either planned or under construction in Downtown. The Douglas Development proposal, with 400,000 square feet of retail, bodes well for ongoing efforts to create an emerging Downtown shopping district.

The company plans to preserve the historic structures on 7th Street in a fashion similar to those restored near Gallery Place; keep all retail to ground levels; build 900 parking spaces throughout the buildings; and work with the Convention Center to enliven the 7th Street corridor. So far, the plans exclude housing, and Douglas Development is trying to win relief from requirements to build it. Another big challenge: securing financing in a down economy. But the company envisions construction could begin in two years or more, depending on how well its plan is received by the Historic Preservation Review Board. Douglas Development expects to present changes to its conceptual plan in March.