Thursday, March 29, 2007

National Harbor designers envision a bustling attraction

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
Kent Digby, vice president of the Peterson Companies, stands bedside a miniature model of what the National Harbor development project in Oxon Hill is expected to look like upon completion.
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Georgetown. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Old Town Alexandria. These are the rivals the designers of the 300-acre National Harbor project hope to eclipse, as the landmark project unfolds along the Potomac.

At the waterfront resort in Oxon Hill, scheduled for its grand opening in one year, there will be nightly light shows to match those of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, as 60 giant lighted sails flash in choreographed time with a musical number. There will be waterfront weddings, street jugglers, art shows and water taxis shuttling visitors from the resort to Mount Vernon and back. Sports enthusiasts can fish for bass, kayak, canoe or jet ski from the project’s recreational piers.

And after sunset, a movie screen might scroll out of the ground by the manmade beach and show a classic family flick — ‘‘Free Willy,” perhaps, says Kent Digby, the project’s operations vice president.

It’s part of a carefully choreographed effort to create a ‘‘festival every day” atmosphere.

National Harbor has been a concept for Prince Georgians for more than a decade. But now that the buildings are coming out of the ground and the piers are stretching into the river, residents and officials are starting to see a project that they insist will redefine Prince George’s County as a regional and international destination.

‘‘It would certainly be the jewel in the crown at this point ... everybody’s going to know about National Harbor,” said Digby as he took Gazette reporters and photographers on a tour of the project Monday.

‘‘The majority of what we’re going to be doing are large, free public events that will span everything from a boat show to a food and wine festival to a flower show to holiday celebrations,” events director Dawn Banket said.

Digby said The Peterson Companies, the project’s developer, is creating a de facto city.

There are 2,500 homes planned on the site at full build out, in five to 10 years. That doesn’t count the visitor traffic in the five hotels, including a Westin, a Residence Inn by Marriott, a Hampton Inn and a W Aloft — and timeshare units in a Wyndham Vacation Resort, comprising 1,092 rooms, that should open next year.

It also doesn’t count the project’s centerpiece, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, a 2,000-room attraction offering spectacular views of the Potomac River and Old Town Alexandria.

Add to that 160,000 square feet of class ‘‘A” office space.

Digby says the site will be a destination, not just for tourists and convention-goers from around the world, but for locals looking to try something different.

National Harbor is expected to boast 10 upscale restaurants and an enticing nightlife, something that’s lacking in most of Prince George’s. The site would include a comedy club, bowling, boutiques, billiards, live music, dancing and, as far as restaurants go, McCormick & Schmick’s and Grace’s Fortune.

The McCormick & Schmick’s building is now just a hollow brick exterior filled with rubble, situated at the water’s edge. But Digby says he can already envision customers on the outdoor terrace, sipping drinks and watching the unobstructed sunset over the river, with the Old Town Alexandria skyline in the background. The 700-foot piers will be open to strolling visitors. Tourists could hop on a vessel for a lunch or dinner cruise. And on holidays like the Fourth of July, there’ll be fireworks and music playing on the main stage.

‘‘It’ll be pretty special,” Digby said. ‘‘National Harbor will have its twist to just about anything.”

Oxon Hill resident Anrika Corbin, 25, who lives next door to the construction site, said she and her friends usually go to Old Town Alexandria or downtown Washington when they want to have fun. But with the resort coming, she said she’s looking forward to checking out their clubs and lounges close to home.

‘‘I probably will hang out there, and I’ll be only five minutes, 10 minutes away,” she said as she sat on her front stoop with pile drivers hammering incessantly in the distance. ‘‘There’s not a lot to choose from in Prince George’s County, so hopefully, this’ll bring some [options].”

Del. Jay Walker (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington, who represents the Oxon Hill-Fort Washington area, said he hopes the project will fill a void in Prince George’s County’s nightlife scene.

‘‘It’s really like nothing you’ve seen around here,” Walker said, projecting a steady stream of locals and tourists on the site. ‘‘You’ve got curiosity, obviously, and curiosity will always bring people.”

Despite its promise, the full concept is still hard to visualize. The dusty, noisy construction site is crowded with nearly 30 cranes. The Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center is one of the few buildings actually standing, and American Way, the broad, landscaped road that will eventually be the central promenade of the project, is still just a dirt path you wouldn’t dare walk on in tennis shoes.

‘‘I bet you we have more cranes per acre than Dubai,” Digby joked, referring to the oil-rich Persian Gulf city known for its dizzying pace of construction.

But he said there are about 2,800 construction workers a day on the site, and that that number will climb to 5,000 later this year. That’s only the first phase of the project.

Gaylord spokeswoman Amie Gorrell said the convention center has already booked 894,000 room nights, into 2016.

‘‘We’re a year out from opening, so we fully anticipate... to open with more rooms on the books than any hotel ever,” she said. Gaylord itself is expected to open with seven restaurants, a spa and a nightclub.

Residents are excited.

‘‘Of course, we want to see restaurants that are badly needed in the south county region – tablecloth restaurants,” said Fort Washington resident Sarah Cavitt. ‘‘I know there’ll be a lot of people from Prince George’s County that’ll come. A lot of us are curious and it’s here in our county and we want to support it.”

Digby said he anticipates 15 million to 20 million visitors per year.

‘‘The amount of activity is going to change from being a quiet area to being one of the busiest areas in the metropolitan region,” said Oxon Hill resident Bonnie Bick, who has spent years negotiating with the developers, making sure the community is not negatively affected.

Bick said she is hopeful that a consultant hired to help redesign Oxon Hill Road, where she lives, will successfully equip the residential road with enough traffic calming devices so it won’t catch cut-through traffic from the project.

Bick, other public officials and the developer, are also hoping for rail to be installed along the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, to help reduce the inflow of vehicle traffic.

‘‘We must do it right,” she said. Otherwise, ‘‘we’ll be tidal-waved.”

E-mail Judson Berger at jberger@gazette.net.