The PortAmerica project, which was recently approved by the Prince George's Planning Commission, represents an extraordinary opportunity to create a model development on the banks of the Potomac. It is magnificently sited on a crescent-shaped bay, and the developer is committed to taking full advantage of the possibilities involved in creating a coherent town from scratch.
While the residential, retail and recreational aspects of this waterfront development have been universally praised, there has been substantial discussion about its centerpiece: the 52-story world trade center. The tower acts as the landmark for the development, as well as the gateway to Maryland. Our studies indicate it will be visible from many vantage points around the area, a distinctive but small bump on the horizon. It will not be visible from many points in the District's monumental area, and where it is, it will be barely discernible.
The National Capital Planning Commission claims that the building's height would mar the capital skyline and compete visually with the Washington Monument. In order to illustrate their concerns, the NCPC staff prepared photo montages to show how the building might appear from several different key perspectives. This technique is a standard practice -- one that we often employ in projects, including this one -- and one with which the NCPC, given its mandate, should have much experience and expertise. It was consequently all the more distressing and surprising to discover that the NCPC montages so grossly misrepresent the perception of the building.
Despite the fact that our montages and those provided by the NCPC were constructed from the same vantage points, there were great discrepancies. Whereas our montages, which were checked for accuracy on our own computer, depicted the building as barely visible on the horizon, their version showed an overwhelming presence on the landscape.
The NCPC, after releasing these montages to the press and public, later acknowledged that they were inaccurate. The damage, however, was done: an impression was erroneously created that the PortAmerica building, which would be over seven miles from the Washington Monument, would somehow miraculously have as much a visual impact on this sacred national monument as do the buildings in Rosslyn.
The NCPC created a second round of montages, providing the projected views from such points as the top of the Washington Monument and the Truman Balcony. While they appear much more accurate than previous photos, we have no way of checking, since we do not have access to these places.
PortAmerica would certainly be visible from the top of the monument. But doesn't one go to the top for a panoramic view? And if it is visible from the Truman Balcony -- which is not accessible to the public -- might not the president enjoy pointing out to visiting dignitaries the location of Washington's world trade center, a proud symbol of Maryland?
It is significant to note that the PortAmerica building would not be visible from the perspectives most commonly seen by the public: at the base of either the monument or the ground level of the White House.
While montages can provide a good indication of how a building might appear, an analogy with a comparable situation in Paris can provide a more comprehensible picture. Paris and Washington share many characteristics: a sense of monumentality, carefully planned axes and buildings with uniformly low heights. When Montparnasse, a looming black office tower, was constructed in the midst of the city, Parisians rightfully protested that it destroyed the city's skyline. The government consequently apportioned the area of La Defense for high-rise construction.
The skyscrapers of La Defense, which is on axis with the Arc de Triomphe, successfully recede into the background and overwhelm neither the arch nor the Eiffel Tower. La Defense is 2.6 miles away from the Arc, and its tallest building is 44 stories; the 52-story PortAmerica building is 7.4 miles away from the Washington Monument, nearly three times the distance.
The Air Line Pilots Association has also registered its concern that the building might pose an obstacle to established aircraft routes. We, of course, were aware of the air routes in the area and have carefully positioned the building to avoid interference. The matter is now under study by the Federal Aviation Administration, whose expertise and authority will guide us so that human safety is not in any way jeopardized.
Developer James T. Lewis would not have undertaken PortAmerica, nor would I have accepted the architectural commission, if there were any indication that our efforts might detract from the significant symbols of our national identity. On the contrary, we have been painstaking to create a development that will enhance the D.C. area and give residents and visitors one more reason to feel proud about the capital.