What do we know about the MGM National Harbor giant video screens?


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

The Prince George’s Planning Board on Thursday approved the site plans for the proposed MGM National Harbor casino project, agreeing to a design that integrates five giant screens and promotional signs.

MGM’s signage plan, which includes some freestanding and building-mounted signs and lighting features, were the subject of objection for some county residents, civic leaders and Historic Preservation experts at the meeting. The board approval came with conditions, but not significant changes to the proposed signs.

The planning commission’s decision moves the $925 million project a step closer to construction. With it, MGM could begin to seek building permits from the county. The casino is scheduled to open in July 2016.

But because of the magnitude of the project, the planning board’s decision could be appealed. County and MGM officials expect the case will go before the County Council before it can move to construction phase.

So that means the signs will likely continue to be an issue of debate during this process. Here’s a primer on why they have become the project’s most “troubling and objectionable features.”

A look at the planned casino and its multiple outdoor screens

Here is what we know about the video screens:

Their style “is really unlike any we have seen in the county,” said county planner Meika Fields.

There are five light emitting LED video screens planned. The largest one will be 60-feet-tall, 100-feet-wide, and 35-feet-deep and will be at the top and center of the complex’s west building.

The other four video boards—49-feet-tall, 90-feet-wide, and 71-feet-deep— will be integrated into the design of the facility to incorporate stairwells for the project. Pedestrians will be able to walk through the area under the boards. There will be two along National Avenue, facing the Capital Beltway and two along Harborview Avenue, facing the historic Oxon Hill Manor property.

They will be at elevations 124 feet from the ground, visible to drivers from the Capital Beltway.

The LED video boards are proposed to be lit at night, and they will be manufactured so the brightness can be adjusted and set appropriate for day and night, and limit lighting impacts on residents.

Who will be impacted?

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 a county report.

Drivers on the Beltway will be able to spot the signs, something that residents said could be a potential safety hazard.

It is unclear how far away from the Beltway you will be able to see the signs.

What if you stand at Mount Vernon’s east lawn overlooking the Potomac River? Will you be able to spot the light flashing from the casino?

The topography of the land at George Washington’s home, along with a line of trees on the property will block the view of the casino, said Eric Benson, who manages the Geographic Information System program at Mount Vernon.

His study results mirrored the one done separately by Prince George’s planning staff.

“For our visitors it will not be an issue,” he said. “We are pleased with that.”

The casino complex, as approved, would impact the view on some of Prince George’s historic sites nearby: Addison Family Cemetery, Oxon Hill Manor, Mount Welby, and Butler House.

The Historic Preservation Commission in Prince George’s asked MGM to remove the video boards from the side of the complex facing Oxon Hill Manor, which was built in 1929 on a hill with a view of the Potomac and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and used for special events.

The commission and the county’s parks and recreation department determined that additional landscaping would be needed to ensure a buffer between the two properties and MGM has agreed to pay $85,353 to improve the buffer.

How big are the signs compared to what’s typical in the county?

Altogether the five boards will have a total area of about 46,240 square feet.

In standard commercial zones, the county regulation determines the maximum sign areas permitted, and that is generally calculated based on the linear feet of the building’s main frontage. The cap on permitted signage is 400 square feet, Fields said.

“Clearly this application proposes much more than 400 square feet of signage,” she said. “Placing that cap aside for a moment, a building of this length... would be permitted approximately 4,600 square feet of building mounted signage.”

MGM’s signage package is 10 times that amount.

Why are the boards allowed, then?

The project is in what is known as “a mixed-used transportation oriented zone”, and the standard sign regulations regarding maximum sign height and area do not apply to this planning area, Fields said. Generally, for a project like MGM’s, the signs are approved by the Planning Board during its review process. The board is required to determine whether the proposed signs are appropriate in size, type and design based on the proposed location and the use to be served, Fields said.

On Thursday, there was some discussion about their size, utility, and impact before the board voted.

William Cavitt, president of the Indian Head Highway Area Action Council, said his group also considers the screens would be garish.

“Prince Georgians have long sought high-end everything, from restaurants to shopping opportunities to architecture. The proposed iconic MGM building overlooking the Potomac River at the southern gateway of Maryland will have a stunning piece of architecture. We cannot understand why MGM would then cheapen, not to say desecrate such architecture, by putting video boards on the side of it.”

Arthur J. Horn Jr., a Prince George’s attorney who represents MGM made the case to the board that the screens were carefully integrated into the plan and considered an attraction that is part of the overall architectural design. Although the screens are large, Horne said, they are adequate for a building that will have more than a million square feet in uses.

“We don’t have shopping centers that are a million square feet. This is huge, it is a good size building so proportion wise it is not out of the ordinary,” he said.

That brings us to other signage in the property:

Guests will be welcomed by an 18-foot tall statue of MGM’s trademark lion at the casino’s main entrance. The statue will sit upon a pedestal, 16 feet high.

On the 300-room hotel main entrance, a freestanding sign will feature the text “MGM”.

“MGM” signs will also be mounted on the north and south sides of the hotel tower.

A portion of the exterior elevations of the hotel will be lit from dusk to dawn, a design to attract attention to the building. According to the planning staff, the lighting will be accomplished through horizontal bands of white lighting placed under aluminum fins located on each level of the hotel.

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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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