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.
Miller, a Prince George's native and president of a beverage distribution company, said he's still adjusting to the "confined space" of his 1,700-square-foot condo. He wishes there was a grocery store nearby; his wife orders from Peapod, a grocery delivery service.
And some say it feels a bit strange living amid a constant influx of weekly interlopers -- often guests at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center -- who turn residents into unwitting tour guides when they ask for directions to restaurants, shops, even their own hotel.
On the more heavily trafficked days, such as Fourth of July weekend, the crowds even cause some residents to worry about security.
"There's all these people walking around. You don't know who they are," said Greg Lomax, director of sales for a health-care company in Virginia. Lomax lives in a three-bedroom condo with a view of the river that he bought for $640,000.
Lomax said he wishes his building, One National Harbor, had some more people in it but realizes that the recession might be slowing purchases. Those who have moved in are taking steps to strengthen the community vibe inside the building, he said, organizing a monthly cocktail gathering for residents via Facebook.
Lomax also cited as annoyances nearby highway traffic whenever there's a concert and a noisy posse of motorcyclists who have taken to rumbling down the waterside strip on Sundays.
Traci Brown of San Diego, in town for the legal tech conference recently, said that the complex is "beautiful" to visit but that she would never want to live there.
"It's kind of weird driving in," she said. "You're on the freeway, there's nothing, and then there's this. . . . Where's the grocery store? Where's the gas station?"
They're coming, said Marc Menick, vice president of retail for National Harbor. There are plans to build a convenience store and gas station just outside the grounds, and negotiations are underway to bring an upscale grocery store to the complex.
"These are high priorities for us now," Menick said. "Before we added the residents, it wasn't as high of a priority. What we needed was some really good restaurants to serve the hotel guests."
Still, residents say the benefits outweigh the at-times bizarre costs.
"The terrace sold me on it," said Lomax, 55, as he relaxed with his Yorkshire terrier, Windsor, on his terrace. Much of his view is blocked by a massive parking garage and a building, but Lomax chooses to focus on a narrow clearing in the distance that reveals the water and the Wilson Bridge.
"I'm glad I made this decision," he said.