A building project model appearing in a photo in yesterday's Metro section was erroneously identified as being that of PortAmerica, a project being developed in Prince George's County by James T. Lewis. The model in the photo was of another Lewis project under way in Fairfax County.
James T. Lewis has an idea for a port town. In his mind, he said, small shops and restaurants on the waterfront are romantically lit at night by a string of lights, reminiscent of a town he once visited on the French Riviera.
But Lewis, a local developer known for his white arched Tycon Courthouse building at Tysons Corner, looked beyond the chic waterfront developments in Alexandria and Georgetown for his dream town and commercial center on the Potomac. He is planning to build in Prince George's County.
Last fall Lewis purchased controlling interest in the Bay of the Americas project in Oxon Hill, altered the plans and changed the name to PortAmerica
The developer has embellished his plan by commissioning two of the nation's most renowned architects -- Philip Johnson and John Burgee -- to design the project.
Lewis' plans for a $700 million commercial and retail center will feature 1,200 luxury low-rise apartments and town houses, priced at $250,000 or more, a shopping arcade, restaurants, hotels, parking and a marina. The project also has been approved as the official site of Washington's World Trade Center and will join 40 such buildings around the world that have been sanctioned by the World Trade Center Association.
The waterfront project, as envisioned, could rival Baltimore's Harbor Place, Old Town Alexandria's waterfront and Georgetown. It has won enthusiastic support from numerous developers and officials in Prince George's County, who say the development will add pizazz to Prince George's reputation, a boost for that county that is behind its neighbors in spawning major commercial developments.
Yet the scope of the project, which so thrills the officials, also has raised questions among real estate brokers who note that the market for commercial space is quickly becoming glutted in the Washington area.
Lewis Bolan, managing director of Leggat, McCall and Werner Inc., a Washington real estate counseling firm, is concerned that Lewis will have some difficulty renting or selling the office space because the commercial market in Prince George's has a higher vacancy rate than in neighboring jurisdictions. Of Lewis, Bolan said, "I wish him good luck. I think he's got an uphill battle," but "it's by no means impossible."
With Johnson and Burgee as architects, Bolan believes PortAmerica could become "a world-class project," but will have to compete with more established commercial areas such as those along I-270 and in Gaithersburg in Montgomery County and in Fair Oaks in Fairfax County.
"It's the kind of project that any jurisdiction in the world would be proud to have," said Prince George's County Council Chairman William Amonett, whose district will include PortAmerica. "Where else can you go and have a slip at your door . . . near the office, restaurants and boutiques?"
Council member Sue V. Mills, from the neighboring district, said that the initial zoning approval for Bay of Americas in June 1983 "opened the floodgate" for other commercial developments in the southern end of the county. She also anticipates the project will give a much needed boost to the value of existing housing in the area. Mills said her end of the county has been overlooked for too long in favor of areas north of Central Avenue. PortAmerica, she said, will force neighboring jurisdictions to "recognize Prince George's for the class that was already here. It's the shot in the arm we need."
During the past three years, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening and the County Council have courted businesses that they hoped would locate there. Large high-quality developments such as the Calverton office park, McCormick & Company's commercial park in Largo and the Metro East complex in New Carrollton, were sought not only because they would bring revenue to the county, but also because, officials said, the projects would improve the county's image with other developers.
But Prince George's still has a great deal of catching up to do. Fairfax and Montgomery counties are much further along, according to Glendening's spokesman Tim Ayers, because they started many years ago. "They didn't have the deep agricultural base that we did and they were more aggressive about trying to get businesses to locate there," Ayers said.
While Prince George's is now succeeding in getting new development, Ayers said PortAmerica is unique and therefore a much more visible project.
The original notion of Bay of the Americas was born about five years ago when local developers James Burch and Frank Lucente placed a contract on about 485 acres, including 200 acres under water, that included Smoot Bay and a nearby mined-out sand and gravel pit.
The developers held the land under contract for about three years while they awaited zoning approval for the project and searched for an experienced and financially sound partner. Other developers expressed interest, but it was Lewis who finally offered an acceptable deal.
Lewis, a lawyer, is president of JTL Developers Inc., which is building the Tycon Towers office complex near Tysons Corner in Vienna. Lewis said he believes he was invited to participate because "I'm generally perceived as developing toward the higher end of the market . . . . It has been emphasized to me since day one that what Prince George's wants is a very high level, quality project." So Lewis said he agreed to the purchase because it is "the last piece of undeveloped property on the Potomac" and has easy access to the Beltway, I-295, Washington and National Airport.
While the original Bay of the Americas zoning approval is still valid, Lewis must submit his revised plans to the County Council and planners for their final approval. That should not be much of a problem, according to John Delaney, a development attorney with Linowes and Blocher. Delaney said Prince George's government is eager to lure more commercial develpment into the county and therefore offers "a stable regulatory climate."
Lewis is considered the key to the success of PortAmerica. "I would say that until Lewis got involved, there really wasn't a developer," said Charles Dukes, the former chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which, along with the County Council, must approve the project through its many phases.
Lewis is expected to have little trouble financing the project, Prince George's officials and real estate brokers said. "He has a fine reputation and a good, solid track record," said Bolan, the development counselor.
"Track record means everything," Lewis said, pointing out that he has an $80 million loan from Chase Manhattan Bank for the first Tycon building. He said he does not anticipate having any trouble getting PortAmerica's first phase funded for about $100 million. He said he has already had preliminary discussions with two large lending institutions, but will not formally apply for a loan until all the plans are final. Lewis said he is not just looking for a loan, but a major lender, such as a pension fund or insurance company, to be a partner in the project.
Lewis said he hopes to break ground next summer and anticipates that construction will be completed in 10 years. However, there are still some important details to be worked out.
Before the project can go ahead, Congress must approve the transfer of 55 acres of wooded land from the federal government to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for an access road into the property off I-295. According to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is rewriting the bill, that land, located just beyond the intersection of I-295 and the Beltway, will be used for the access road and park land. He expects the measure to be passed by Congress early in the fall, but the design of the roadway is still being discussed by the developer and state officials.
Lewis seems confident that these details will fall into place. He is clearly excited about his new undertaking.
"Location, location, location is the key in real estate," he said, explaining that he believes he has found one of the best in the area.
PortAmerica will "be a showplace" for the county, according to Hoyer. "This is the first vista people are going to have coming into Prince George's from the south." Not to mention that the project could provide 9,300 jobs for county residents and drum up $2.5 million a year in revenues for the county, he said.
Hoyer said he is not worried about getting the well-heeled to buy homes there. They will be enticed by the unique location, he believes. Besides, "I think Jim Lewis is a very successful guy, so he must know something about marketing."
Despite official enthusiasm for the project, it has been criticized by some residents. Carmen Anderson, who is active in county civic associations, was one of a few people who fought the zoning for the project. She is less concerned about competition with neighboring counties than she is about the density of the project in a neighborhood of large lots and single-family homes.
"What they're creating there is one of the most urban environments in the area," she declared.