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Correction to This Article
A Page One article on April 22 about the National Harbor development misidentified the agency that once oversaw the project. It was the National Capital Planning Commission.

Grand Vision for National Harbor Takes Form

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Milt Peterson looks upon the artist renderings of National Harbor with the critical eye of a general. It's like nothing Washington has ever seen.

Sail-shaped banners line the Potomac waterfront, with moving images projected on the fabric. A retractable, 42-foot video screen stretches between two masts for outdoor movies. Stonehenge-like boulders alternate with larger-than-life bronze statues along the promenade leading to the water. In his mind's eye, Peterson sees concerts, sailboat races, sunset cruises, fireworks, maybe even water ballet.

Until now, the piece de resistance of his National Harbor project has been a carefully guarded secret. In the coming months, the outdoor sculpture "The Awakening" will be dug up from Hains Point, its home for the past 27 years, then barged and trucked to an undisclosed location where it will be cleaned and restored.

Then, the 70-foot work, which depicts a giant struggling to emerge from the earth, will be planted in a new sandy beach on the other side of the Potomac River. "There'll be steps going down, and there'll be Charlie, on the beach," Peterson says, sweeping his arms open wide like Vanna White, and tilting his 6-foot-2, lanky frame back in his office chair. "That's what I call putting the fat chicken on the front hook."

After a lifetime of building suburban subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers and malls, Peterson, 71, is about to make his biggest and perhaps most indelible mark on the suburban Washington landscape. A year from now, he will unveil the first phase of a $2 billion streetscape of white-tablecloth dining, retail, executive offices and luxury waterfront homes at the southern tip of Prince George's County. There'll be water taxis to and from Alexandria and the District, sightseeing tours and a public marina.

On a recent spring morning, Peterson flies in his personal jet up to Rochester to meet with the artist who is creating the 85-foot steel sculpture for National Harbor's entrance. It will set the tone for the place, like the Statue of Liberty, he says. People will see it coming off the Wilson Bridge, curled and rippling steel rising skyward, like a Technicolor beacon to the harbor.

"We're putting something fabulous on the river that says it's special," he says. "It's going to be POW! It's going to be explosive! We're going to change Washington."

Building a Reputation

Peterson, who lives in Fairfax, began making a name for himself almost as soon as he moved to Northern Virginia after college with his childhood sweetheart and wife, Carolyn. As a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, he worked for Stephen Yeonas, one of the biggest developers in the growing region. In a short time, Peterson became the first salesman to surpass the $1-million-a-year mark. By 23, he was running the entire sales force.

Striking out on his own, he began building small townhouse developments, eventually partnering with a young attorney, John T. "Til" Hazel, who remembers Peterson's insistence on carving out sites for churches, raising construction money and developing the sites when local congregations formed.

Peterson's gregarious, folksy personality charmed skeptics, recalls Hazel, now a prominent Northern Virginia real estate developer, and enabled him to reach accommodations with opponents. He made a name building communities with shopping and office parks such as Fair Lakes and Burke Center in Virginia. His company also redeveloped downtown Silver Spring.

Peterson has spent millions in more than a decade since he bought the National Harbor site to build a legacy where others have tried and failed.

The footings of developer James T. Lewis's PortAmerica, which was thwarted by permit troubles, federal and local opposition and ultimately, financial problems, lie beneath the earth under National Harbor. Lewis had bought the property from developer James H. Burch, who in the early 1980s had proposed but failed to produce Bay of America, a mix of townhouses and offices that he said at the time would be "more visible than even Tysons Corner."

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