A reader from the District suggests that the National Harbor project, proposed for development in Prince George's County, will have "major transportation, environmental and aesthetic impacts" on the Washington region.
"Perhaps you could address some of the issues I raised in a future column(s)," wrote Jeffrey G. Mora.
Now is as good a time as any to address those issues, given the degree of misunderstanding that lingers even at this late date.
It has been four years since Peterson Cos. of McLean announced plans to develop a $1 billion luxury resort, entertainment and retail complex on a 535-acre site overlooking the Potomac River south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Since that announcement, company officials have probably met with more community groups, hosted more public meetings, held more briefings and provided more details about this project than any developer has for any other project in the area.
Meanwhile, National Harbor has undergone every applicable local, state and federal regulatory review.
Every approval by local, state and federal authorities has been documented and reported by the media. Indeed, the recent announcement by Gaylord Entertainment Inc. of Nashville that it will build an Opryland hotel and convention center at National Harbor generated no fewer than four news articles and two columns in The Washington Post.
There is nevertheless a lingering perception that Peterson is getting a free ride, that it has managed somehow to escape regulatory scrutiny.
"One aspect of the development that you failed to mention is that a bill passed by Congress exempted the project from any environmental review!" Mora asserted in his letter. "Why should this major project be exempt from environmental reviews any more than other major projects in environmentally sensitive areas?"
The fact is, National Harbor has not been exempted from environmental reviews. Peterson Cos. received approvals from state and federal environmental regulatory agencies, including the Maryland Department of the Environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after extensive review.
Moreover, a draft environmental impact study, which was completed at the request of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), concluded that "mitigation measures to reduce or alleviate project-generated impacts have been identified, as appropriate."
Rather than exempting National Harbor from environmental review, Congress last year approved legislation rescinding an obsolete memorandum that gave the NCPC authority to review plans for the project. That memorandum was based on a developer's request for an easement to use 55 acres of federal land that would have provided access to another project. Congress approved the easement and a transfer of the 55 acres to Prince George's County but insisted at the time that the NCPC retain authority to review development in that area.
Peterson Cos. never asked for an easement. Peterson neither plans to build on the 55-acre site nor use it to gain access to the National Harbor tract. In the absence of any federal interest, oversight by the NCPC is no longer necessary.
Citing what he called the "entertainment theme park" issue, Mora inquired: "Does Opryland belong in a region noted for its governmental importance and focus on American history?"
For starters, Opryland, which takes its name from Nashville's Grand Old Opry, is as much a part of Americana as pro football on Sundays.
Let's be clear about what's planned at National Harbor. Peterson Cos. has described National Harbor in any application, public statement or plan document as an entertainment theme park. From the beginning, the developer described it as a luxury resort destination, with a mix of hotels, retail, entertainment and office space. That's the basis on which Prince George's County officials gave their preliminary approval to the plan.
Adhering to that concept, Peterson entered into a joint venture with Gaylord Entertainment, under which Gaylord will build a 2,000-room hotel and 400,000-square-foot convention center under one roof, the largest such facility anywhere. The fact that Gaylord decided to call the complex Opryland Hotel Potomac may not have been the "people's choice." But, like its flagship hotel-convention center in Nashville, every hotel property planned by Gaylord's meetings and hospitality group will carry the Opryland name.
"Has the county and its planning staff . . . addressed the issue of how thousands of persons who will be visiting and/or staying at National Harbor/Opryland get there?" Mora asked. "By automobile across the Wilson Bridge?"
How do most people who come to Washington for conferences, conventions or leisure get to their hotels? They take a cab or a limousine from an airport or from Union Station, don't they? Presumably some drivers will use the Wilson Bridge, just as others won't have a need to use it. Either way, new ramps from Interstate 295 and the Capital Beltway will facilitate access to and egress from National Harbor.
That and other concerns--environmental, aesthetic and the project's likely impact on nearby residential areas--have been thoroughly addressed by federal, state and local authorities.
What interest could they possibly have in approving something that's unsightly, harmful to the environment or an impingement on federal interests? Think about it.