Is monumental Washington area ready for the Capital Wheel at National Harbor?


A rendering of the Ferris wheel for National Harbor. (Artist's rendering/Brown Craig Turner Architects + Designers)

Is the monumental Washington area ready for the Capital Wheel at National Harbor?

A city known for a monumental skyline marked by a sober granite obelisk and a stately cast-iron dome is getting a piece of good, old American razzle-dazzle just outside its borders.

In April, a $15 million brightly lit 175-foot-tall Ferris wheel will begin slowly spinning visitors on 12- to 15-minute rides as they overlook the Potomac River from the burgeoning $4 billion playground known as National Harbor, seven miles south of the District in Prince George’s County.

“When you have a place like National Harbor or Washington, you need new things, iconic things. Not piddly things. When you do something like this wheel, you are going to get people from Richmond driving here, people from Philadelphia driving here,” said Milt Peterson, the real estate magnate behind National Harbor.

A look at the scale of the planned ferris wheel in D.C.

Peterson said he envisions the attraction, easily visible from flights arriving at or departing from Reagan National Airport, becoming as much a part of region’s skyline as the Washington Monument or U.S. Capitol. In mid-2016, it will be joined by a $925 million MGM resort and casino.

Such glitzy alterations to Potomac views may come as an affront to some, particularly given the wheel’s visibility from Old Town Alexandria and some other spots.

Georgetown resident Dawn M. Carpenter, calls the Capital Wheel “Cultural Déjà vu.”

“Just as Dubai is planning for the massive Dubai Eye wheel in 2015, now National Harbor? I’m a Washingtonian and a traditionalist,” she said in an e-mail. “I still prefer postcards of the Washington skyline celebrating the iconic memorial to George Washington over a modern-day tribute to George Washington Ferris Jr., inventor of the Ferris wheel. I hope we are not being taken back to the one-ups of Chicago and Paris in the late 1800s.”

Peterson said he borrowed the idea from Paris, where he visited the 200-foot Roue de Paris with his wife in 2007. His 17-story version, the Capital Wheel, is being built on a 770-foot-long pier extending into the Potomac. It will have 42 gondolas equipped with sound systems, air conditioning and heating. Each gondola will fit about eight people, who will pay $15 each for two revolutions.

He expects between 600,000 and 800,000 visitors to ride the Capital Wheel the first year.

“When people fly into National, they are going to be saying: ‘Holy cow. Look at that. I want to go there,’ ” said Jon Peterson, Milt’s son and the principal of the family’s real estate empire, the Peterson Cos. “This will just solidify that we will be the place to be in the Washington area. This just adds another item to our bag of tricks.”

National Harbor is fast becoming a grab bag of attractions. It first made a splash by attracting the giant Gaylord conference center to anchor a development that includes retail shops, high-end condominiums and more.

Nearby, Peterson bought and relocated “The Awakening,” the iconic, if odd, sculpture of a giant emerging from the earth that once was a fixture of the District’s Hains Point. He tried, but failed, to lure Disney to the site. He had more success luring the National Children’s Museum in 2012, followed last year by a retail center of outlet shops. Recently, Maryland awarded MGM the rights to build a casino there. He also has installed a $1 million carousel.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said the wheel further shows “that National Harbor is not just resting, with MGM coming or the things they’ve been doing with Tanger Outlets, but always upping their game.”

Baker said he doubted there would be strong opposition from locals to a brightly lit wheel on the river bank. “I think the expectation of the residents of Prince George’s County is: How do we make this an attractive place where people want to spend some time and not just pass through? I think people will not only get it but will be excited about it,” he said.

Ferris wheels providing cascading views have become something of a signature draw for cities looking to put themselves on the map for tourists. One of the most famous is the London Eye, more than twice the height of the Capital Wheel, but others have popped up at Niagara Falls and in Seattle.

The company manufacturing the Capital Wheel, Chance Rides of Wichita, Kan., has produced dozens of amusement park Ferris wheels. It made its first large “observation wheel” in 2005 and has made about one a year since then, said the company’s director of theme park sales, Angus Jenkins.

As with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Jenkins said the wheels provide a different view of a city for visitors, even those who weren’t planning to go on any rides. The Capital Wheel will feature a VIP cabin that can be rented for weddings or celebrations and — at a cost of $1 million — special-effects lighting that can change colors to suit the season or holiday. The Wolfgang Puck restaurant chain will provide seasonal concessions at the base of the ride.

“You would be surprised by the number of people who take it just because it is a whole new experience,” Jenkins said.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.
Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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