Washington's 12-story myopia reached new heights of absurdity last week when two federal commissions denounced plans to build a skyscraper in Prince George's County. The 52-story World Trade Center tower -- the centerpiece of a $1 billion commercial and residential project slated for construction on the shores of the Potomac in southern Prince George's -- would dwarf the Washington Monument and dominate the skyline of the nation's capital, members of the two commissions would have us believe.
To be sure, there are legitimate questions yet unanswered about the potential impact of the proposed 480-acre mixed-use project called PortAmerica. But the aesthetic effect of a building on a site seven miles south of the Washington Monument and in a sovereign state far removed from federal interests in the District hardly qualifies as a legitimate concern. Rather, it is another example of an 18th-century mind-set being applied to the economic realities of the present.
A claim that building the tower would be an "act of vandalism" to the Washington skyline distorts the truth about the geography and topography of the District and surrounding jurisdictions. Moreover, it fails to take into account the fact that the Washington skyline has changed dramatically in recent years, having been transformed by substantial commercial development just outside the District. As a result, the Washington Monument is no longer the dominant feature of the skyline as one looks at it from various vantage points.
The panorama from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, south of the District, to the clusters of high-rise office buildings to the northwest, in Rosslyn, effectively destroys the argument in favor of limiting PortAmerica's structures to 17 stories. Moreover, Washington's generally horizontal skyline notwithstanding, one's view of the PortAmerica tower probably would be obstructed in the District, except from vantage points in Anacostia or along the southwest waterfront. Even then, the distance between PortAmerica and the Washington Monument would render height differences negligible.
Suggesting that a cap be placed on building heights in Prince George's County is all the more ludicrous when office buildings 30 stories and taller loom on the horizon in Rosslyn, less than two miles from the Washington Monument. Besides, federal officials found the argument lacking when they sued unsuccessfully to block construction of high rises in Rosslyn, including the 390-foot USA Today tower.
"When you've got 35-story buildings across the river from the Lincoln Memorial, I think you'd be hard pressed to tell Prince George's County, which trails other jurisdictions in economic development, that it can't have the same," remarked Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). "It's unreasonable and unfair."
Members of the National Capital Planning Commission appear to be as uninformed as they are unreasonable. According to a story in The Post last week, the NCPC said it learned from reading the newspaper that PortAmerica developer James T. Lewis had submitted plans for the tower shortly after enactment of legislation last December, giving Lewis access to a parcel of federal land along the Potomac.
"To imply that somehow the Congress was deluded is unfortunate and I think intemperate," Hoyer said of suggestions that Lewis misled federal government officials.
The skyscraper was not germane to an agreement between the developer and federal planners on the access issue. Nor was it a matter of consideration before Congress, when it approved the land-access legislation. Lewis' plan to build the skyscraper on an adjacent parcel was common knowledge, nevertheless.
A Post story in December 1984, about various plans to build world trade centers in the area noted that a 1.2 million square-foot center in the Oxon Hill area of Prince George's County "will tower over" a 442-acre complex of luxury homes and office buildings. The headline of another story that appeared in The Post on Aug. 26, 1985, informed readers that a 50-story tower had been proposed for the Potomac shore in Prince George's County.
Similar stories detailing plans for development of the PortAmerica World Trade Center and new town were published in Regardie's and Washingtonian magazines.
For his part, Lewis contends he "went out of my way" as a "matter of courtesy" to inform members of the NCPC of his plans to erect the World Trade Center tower.
While the commission's arrogant meddling will amount to no more than a slap in the face of Prince George's County officials, Lewis and his architects still must persuade the FAA that the tower poses no danger to planes flying in and out of National Airport.
Beyond that, there is the issue of additional traffic congestion associated with PortAmerica, even with road improvements in the area around I-295, I-95 and Indian Head Highway. But that is the downside of economic development that county officials must address; not outsiders whose interests lie elsewhere.