WASHINGTON — Tucked in the center of the nation’s capital, a hot market for retail expansion, is a virtual retail no-man’s land in prime downtown real estate where boarded-up storefronts are neighbors with hotels, museums and high-brow law firms.

The several-square-block area running east of the bustling Metro Center subway stop has beguiled city planners for decades. While they’ve been able to attract hip restaurants and bookstores to the neighborhood, apparel merchants have been timid about making the move. Instead, merchants such as city newcomers Zara, Kate Spade and Target are choosing locales like longtime retail-hub Georgetown or up-and-coming urban-chic Columbia Heights.

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