National Harbor Residents Press 'L' for Tourist's Playground

By Jonathan Mummolo and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 2009

As National Harbor resident Jim Toole lounged near the glistening Potomac River recently -- Caribbean-style music drifting from nearby outdoor speakers -- that week's neighbors swirled all around him. Many were lawyers and IT workers there for a legal technology convention. Earlier this summer, they were a group of optometrists. This week, aeronautics gurus were in town for an air and space expo.

"It's nice to live someplace where there are tourists," said Toole, who moved into a condominium there in February, part of the first wave to plant roots in the convention hub that doubles as a glitzy, exit-ramp residential community. "We take the elevator down, and we're where people might have driven 500 miles to get to."

It wasn't always certain that National Harbor -- a towering, still-expanding $4 billion complex of hotels, stores and restaurants off the Capital Beltway -- would ultimately have residential units. In 2005, Prince George's County officials approved the addition of 2,500 condos and townhouses to the plan as a concession to angry neighbors who feared a sort of Atlantic City on the Potomac was rolling into Oxon Hill. Adding housing, they argued, would make it a little more Mayberry and a little less Disney.

Even with the first condos, the vibe is still much closer to the latter. With a neighborhood that is part shopping mall-part upscale highway rest stop-part resort, residents walk out their lobby doors onto theme park-like streets, which won't show up on some GPS devices. They teem with convention guests, shoppers, tourists and couples arriving by water taxi to dine out. There is no grocery store, no gas station, no Metro stop.

The complex has three condo buildings open so far, with 423 total units. To date, about 335 have been sold, with prices stretching from the low $200,000s to more than $3 million, said Dennis Kunselman, director of sales for National Harbor. He estimated that more than 500 people have moved in but said it's difficult to pinpoint the exact number.

For some, the experience has supplanted what had become a tired suburban routine. There's no lawn to mow, no gutters to clear, and the nightlife -- replete with concerts, nightclubs and bars -- is right outside their front door.

"There's nothing bad," said Toole, as he sat on a bench with his Labradoodle, Doobie, not far from a reproduction of a piece of Stonehenge on a street named American Way. It's lined with $3-an-hour parking meters and gushing fountains and was inspired by the famed Barcelona strip, Las Ramblas.

He and his wife, Cindy, traded in their house on the Eastern Shore on two acres for a 900-square-foot, one-bedroom condo. One of the best perks, Toole said, is dining on home-cooked meals on their building's terrace, which overlooks the marina and "The Awakening" sculpture -- a massive aluminum work that was moved from Hains Point over the objection of many District residents.

Even aspects of the National Harbor lifestyle that many would find an inconvenience Toole sees as a plus, like having to bike over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge for groceries.

"We traded mulch for manicures," he said.

But for others, the unique locale has taken some getting used to.

"It's an odd world here, I will say that," said David Miller, who owns two condos in the complex.

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