- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

Milt Peterson, the Fairfax developer behind National Harbor, had the rare opportunity to build a town from scratch. His 300-acre, megacomplex of condominiums, restaurants, shops, offices and hotels on the banks of the Potomac is the biggest project to be built in Prince George’s County, Md.

Part town center, part waterfront resort, part outdoor mall, the $4 billion development will comprise 7.35 million square feet when it is finished in 10 years. Three of its hotels, a trio of commercial buildings and an array of public spaces are already completed, providing an early indication of how this long-anticipated community is taking shape.

The most welcoming aspect of National Harbor is its 1.25 miles of waterfront near the Wilson Bridge. Now transformed with piers and promenade, this is one of the few places in the Washington area where you can easily park the car and stroll along a manicured landscape at the river’s edge.

Sited off Interstates 295 and 495 in Oxon Hill, the development isn’t connected to an urban setting like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Mr. Peterson didn’t have to worry about persnickety review boards arguing for preservation and contextual design.

He could have broken the rules and come up with a truly visionary plan, following in the footsteps of the pioneers who created the 20th-century new towns of Greenbelt and Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va. They still top the list of the most innovative suburban developments in the country.

Instead, National Harbor retreats to safe ground. It repeats at a larger scale the successful — and now predictable — formula familiar from recent mixed-use developments in the District and nearby suburbs. Traversing the central staircases to eateries near the waterfront recalls Georgetown’s Washington Harbour.

Leaving the parking garages to wander around streets lined with upscale shops and restaurants feels like Bethesda Row or downtown Silver Spring, which the Peterson Cos. also developed.

Like those fabricated town centers, National Harbor has the artificial air of a place built almost overnight. It is not quite as contrived and controlled as a theme park but is similarly engineered to move the crowds to shop and eat within its innocuous setting.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Peterson tapped a former Disney Imagineer to devise the entertainment aspects of the project, including a huge video screen on the waterfront.

The only eccentric touch among the masonry buildings, brick sidewalks and granite benches is, rising from the ground, the giant, partially revealed head and limbs of “The Awakening,” J. Seward Johnson’s cast-aluminum sculpture, which was moved to National Harbor from Washington’s Hains Point.

Other bold artworks in the development include “The Beckoning,” an 85-foot-high metal sculpture at the entrance, and two soaring, steel eagles atop columns at the center. Both are by Rochester, N.Y., artist Albert Paley, who has pieces at the Renwick Gallery and National Cathedral.

Mr. Peterson has more affinity for art than architecture. Of the buildings finished so far in the heart of National Harbor, none is truly memorable. Only a few incorporate contemporary touches of glass and metal, with the majority sticking to bland, historicist architecture of brick and concrete. Old-fashioned streetlights and signs underscore the traditional look.

To his credit, the developer tried to create the image of a neighborhood built over time and hired different architects from the District and Baltimore to design the residential and commercial structures.

For the basic organization of streets, buildings and open spaces, he tapped Baltimore’s Development Design Group and Boston-based Sasaki Associates. According to David Kersey, National Harbor’s director of design and construction, 27 schemes were considered before the final vision was agreed upon.

Inspiration came from foreign cities as well as regional mixed-use developments. National Harbor’s main thoroughfare, which runs down the hill to the waterfront, was loosely based on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. Condominiums with balconies and ground-floor shops will overlook its wide median planted with 35-foot-high sycamore trees.

Named the American Way, the avenue aligns with the distant tower of the Masonic Memorial in Alexandria across the Potomac. It is due to be completed in July.

At the foot of the street, broad granite staircases, based on the Spanish Steps in Rome, flank what is called the Belvedere. This terrace, paved in colored terrazzo to resemble a map of the Chesapeake Bay region, provides an elevated place to overlook activity on the fan-shaped plaza abutting the waterfront. Along the river banks, rocky revetments were copied from the harbor front in Sydney, Australia.

A tree-lined boulevard extended to a grand plaza is an old-fashioned, beaux-arts trick, but one that works here to focus the development on the waterfront. The blocks surrounding this spine are sensibly organized on an orthogonal street grid; their longer sides extend in an east-west direction to frame vistas of the river.

Buildings increase in height, from 60 feet to 120 feet, as they step up the hillside to maximize water views from inside.

While National Harbor’s “downtown” provides a pleasant experience along its tree-lined boulevard and plaza, the edges of the development suffer from design neglect.

Parking garages occupy the periphery, with some partially enclosed with offices to disguise their bulk. Unfortunately, this “wrapper” doesn’t extend to the sides of the garages nearest the entrance road, so motorists are greeted by the sight of ugly parking ramps.

Surprisingly, the most appealing architecture turns up in two of the six hotels. Along the waterfront, the 165-room Westin, which opened this week, offers an appropriately nautical image with glass panels at its corner shaped like a sail.

Up the hill and farther south is the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on 42 acres removed from the rest of National Harbor. There is certainly good reason for the distance.

Across the street from the 2,000-room resort hotel are the most unsightly buildings in the whole development, the stripped-down brick Marriott Residence and Hampton inns.

Designed by Gensler of the District, the Gaylord offers the most dramatic space in National Harbor: a soaring atrium that is a modern-day equivalent to London’s 1851 Crystal Palace. With its transparent roof and walls, this lacy structure of steel and glass makes the Smithsonian’s newly enclosed Kogod Courtyard seem ponderous.

The big, 1.65-acre room, which rises to 230 feet at its highest point, frames a broad view of the Potomac through bow trusses along its western face. Unfortunately, its expanse is broken by a pair of stores in Colonial-style houses, which reflect the Gaylord Hotels’ standard procedure of injecting regional design into its hotels. The inclusion of such incongruous architecture is yet more evidence of the formulaic approach in National Harbor, where consumerism ultimately trumps design.

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