Tuesday's symbolic ground breaking for the $1 billion PortAmerica project, along the Potomac River in Prince George's County, was billed in the program as a celebration. It was a celebration, indeed. And with good reason. The fact that the ground-breaking ceremony was finally held is a triumph of perseverance and enlightened capitalism.
Construction on PortAmerica's World Trade Center office complex -- the controversial commercial centerpiece of the proposed new town on the Potomac -- is slated to begin next spring, more than a year behind schedule. Developer James T. Lewis is confident at least that the giant mixed-use project won't be plagued by further delays. More than a year of political posturing in Congress and obstructionist tactics by the federal bureaucracy have cost Lewis millions of dollars in land carrying costs, and additional legal and consultants' fees.
Indeed, the ground-breaking ceremony itself provided a symbolic and fitting reminder of the costly delaying tactics and mean-spirited opposition to Lewis' project: several of the hundreds of balloons released into the air to mark the occasion never cleared the branches of nearby trees.
Finally, however, it appears that wrapping up the financing package for the project is the last hurdle that Lewis has to clear before the bricks and mortar of his vision begin to rise along the Potomac.
The redesigned World Trade Center Washington is scheduled to open in 1990. The entire 480-acre (257 acres under water) PortAmerica project will take about 12 years to complete. When completed, the commercial and luxury residential complex will contain 1.8 million square feet of office space, three hotels, an all-suite inn, a trade mart, three waterfront shopping pavilions, marina, health club, town houses and mid-rise condominiums surrounded by small parks.
But it was the world trade center, originally designed with a 52-story office tower as its centerpiece, that became the focal point of controversy.
Headlines describing the proposed building as the tallest between Philadelphia and Atlanta kindled parochial jealousy across the Potomac in Alexandria and spooked the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA contended the building's height would pose a threat to aircraft operating out of National Airport.
Other federal agencies joined in unprecedented opposition to a privately financed project already approved by state and local officials. PortAmerica was seen either as a "possible" danger to aquatic life or as an "intrusion" on federal monuments in downtown Washington, seven miles from the PortAmerica site.
Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) also railed against what they perceived as an intrusion on the skyline of the nation's capital. They even proposed that special taxes be imposed on developers in the suburbs if they erected buildings exceeding some ridiculously arbitrary height limit close to the District's boundaries.
Lewis clearly wanted to create a dramatic statement, rather than just another office project, but yielded nevertheless to concerns about safety.
"I've always said I wouldn't erect a building that would create a safety hazard," he recently recalled during an interview in his office.
Much has been said about Lewis' stubbornness in his battle to uphold a principle of free enterprise. The entire episode has been marked nonetheless by his willingness to compromise without sacrificing what he and architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee consider most important: the architectural quality of a world-class project.
Now that the federal outcry seems to have subsided, critics undoubtedly will debate the architectural merit and aesthetics of the scaled-down version of the trade center.
Admittedly, one's initial inclination upon seeing a model of the complex is to dub it Fort America because of its Gothic design. As a symbol of business growth and economic vitality in Prince George's County, the 52-story tower or the 29-story substitute that Lewis proposed would have been more dramatic. Either probably would have made a more dramatic impression on the international trade community that the center is designed to attract.
The newly designed trade center complex -- a 22-story octagonal tower flanked by six 10-story office buildings -- is a unique concept in business centers, nevertheless. "It's arranged like a university campus," Johnson said.
And, as Burgee noted, the cluster of granite buildings will still be "very prominent on that hill" overlooking the river and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, south of the District.
In the final analysis, however, the importance of PortAmerica and its trade center complex won't be judged on architectural merit alone. Although impressive in design, it will become more important ultimately for its appeal as a commercial and residential community.
Notwithstanding Lewis' preference for architectural quality, PortAmerica, as he envisions it, will be a significant addition to the economy in Prince George's County and, indeed, all of metropolitan Washington.
Luxury residential units aside, PortAmerica is expected to add at least 10,000 jobs to the local economy.
In addition, Lewis has given a commitment to Prince George's County officials guaranteeing that minority participation in the development of PortAmerica will be at least 15 percent of the cost of the project.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) probably said it best at the ground breaking: "This is a national model, and Jim Lewis, you've given capitalism a good name.