MGM National Harbor casino on road to construction in Prince George’s with key vote


Artist's rendering from the zoning application for large lighted signage at the MGM Casino at National Harbor.

MGM National Harbor casino is headed for construction.

The Prince George’s County Planning Board on Thursday gave approval to a plan by the Nevada-based gaming giant MGM Resorts International for a luxury casino resort on the banks of the Potomac River at National Harbor.

The unanimous vote favoring MGM’s proposed architectural design of the $925 million complex puts the project a step closer to breaking ground, and on track for a July 2016 opening.

The panel’s decision came after nearly five hours of presentations and a public hearing at which residents and civic leaders voiced concerns about the project — primarily objections to lighting features and giant outdoor LED video screens incorporated in the plan.

The modern, sleek MGM casino complex with a 21-story hotel will feature five electronic screens and other building-mounted signs designed to promote the gaming activities at the resort, its restaurants, upscale retail stores and events at the 3,000-seat entertainment venue on 23 acres with easy access to the Capital Beltway.

A look at the planned casino and its multiple outdoor screens

The signs, just like the project itself, would be like nothing Prince George’s County has ever seen. The county prohibits outdoor advertising such as the electronic billboards, and the amount of signage planned at the casino is 10 times what’s typically allowed under the county’s zoning regulations, planners said.

MGM officials say the boards are uniquely incorporated into the design of the facility and are as important to the aesthetics of the building as they are to its operations.

Some residents and civic leaders said the large screens, which would be lighted on three sides, are one of the most troubling and objectionable features of the project. They said the lights will shine on nearby historic sites and residences and have the potential to distract drivers.

“This is not Las Vegas. Their presence will downgrade and cheapen the view of the area from the Wilson Bridge and the Beltway,” said Richard Krueger, 86, a resident of the county for 60 years. “Their image motion will introduce a distraction for motorists traveling at relatively high speeds on the interstate and constitute a safety hazard. They are unnecessary and unwanted.”

While the county’s zoning code prohibits outdoor advertising such as billboards, a report by the county’s planning staff says outdoor advertising signs are defined “as signs that direct attention to a business, commodity, service, entertainment, event, or other activity conducted, sold, or offered elsewhere than upon the property on which the sign is located.”

Because the proposed video boards would advertise services and activities offered at MGM National Harbor, they are not considered outdoor advertising signs or billboards, the planning staff report says.

MGM was awarded Maryland’s sixth and final gambling license last December. After Thursday’s planning board approval, residents have 30 days to appeal and it is likely the case will go before the County Council for review and another public hearing next month. Construction could begin as soon as July.

MGM plans to build an upscale gaming facility with a 300-room glass-tower hotel, 3,600 slot machines, 140 gaming tables, a concert theater, several celebrity chef-driven restaurants, a spa and high-end retail stores.

The resort would have more than 1 million square feet of usable space, including an enclosed parking structure, with one of the multiple parking levels dedicated to VIP guests and two to employees. Guests entering the main entertainment entrance would walk into a glass-roofed conservatory, which would be the nexus of most indoor circulation within the complex, the project’s architect said.

The project is important to Prince George’s County and Maryland, both of which are set to reap substantial economic benefit from revenue generated by the facility. Prince George’s County alone is projected to receive $40 million to $45 million annually, officials said.

With a tight construction schedule, the county has expedited the approval process. The County Council last month adopted legislation allowing gambling in the county, and this week it approved a bill that intends to ensure that county residents and businesses get a fair shot at jobs and contracts with the project. The county executive’s office and MGM are working on the details of a development agreement that will outline specific benefits to the county, company and county officials said.

The planning board approved MGM’s application with conditions pertaining to road improvements, pedestrian and bicycle access, public safety and changes to the signage plan.

MGM has submitted a draft of its 24-hour security and surveillance plan to police, including the company’s strategy to control loitering in the parking areas, according to the planning staff report. Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark Magaw must approve the plan before the county issues use and occupancy permits for the facility.

County planners have recommended several transportation infrastructure improvements to address traffic concerns on nearby roads. For example, a staff report calls for the construction of several ramps to provide a direct connection to the resort from the Capital Beltway and Interstate 295.

A comprehensive transportation plan would need to address specifics about the future needs of public transit, including the location of bus stops and whether bus shelters would need to be built, planners said.

“While many patrons may use transit, there is a potential that many employees will rely upon transit to reach this site,” the report says. “Also, areas need to be identified where taxis can serve patrons, and also where taxis can wait.”

The signage, some of which would be visible to drivers on the Beltway, will include a 60-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide and 35-foot-deep video board at the center of the building facing the Potomac River. There will be four additional 49-foot-tall, 90-foot-wide and 71-foot-deep video boards: two on both the north and south sides of the building, along National Avenue and Harborview Avenue.

The county’s health department in its review of the application asked for assurances that the lighting will not affect nearby residential areas. The closest residential property is approximately 550 feet from the casino site, and MGM has said that “the lighting will not trespass upon adjacent residential properties,” according to the planning report.

The project’s architect, Russell Perry of Smith Group JJR, said the signs will operate with a range of illumination, brighter during the daytime and dimmed at night.

“This is an entertainment venue so there is an air of excitement and festival about the whole thing,” he said. “The creation of that ambiance of excitement is something that is important in the overall design of the building.”

Planning Board member John P. Shoaff questioned the need for signage, suggesting it would take away from the facility’s grand design, which was described by some speakers as an architectural gem.

“I am not certain that five are necessary,” he said, questioning the use of the two signs planned on the Harborview Avenue side of the casino, an area less traveled and that faces the historic Oxon Hill Manor.

The county’s parks and recreation department had raised concerns about the impact of the signs on Oxon Hill Manor, particularly in the winter, when the leaves have fallen. The agency said additional landscaping would be needed to ensure a buffer between the two properties. MGM has agreed to pay $85,353 to improve the buffer.

MGM also agreed to remove a light beam it had originally proposed that would have pointed from the hotel directly into the night sky.

With the board’s approval, MGM is being asked to include in its sign plan an indication that the lighting levels or brightness of the boards would be adjustable for daytime and nighttime to limit the impact.

Prince George’s resident Dorothy F. Bailey said that condition addresses the concerns of residents.

“I think there is something engaging and exciting about being able to come into the community on the outskirts of the city and see the lights from afar,” Bailey said. “I understand the concerns, but I think we have items in the conditions to address that. They can be dimmed and they can be shut completely off.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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