AS THE centerpiece of the extremely ambitious PortAmerica project, on the Potomac
River shore of Prince George's County just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, a developer wants to erect a 52-story, glass-sided office building. Forget trying to compare it with anything currently in or near Washington. Nothing is of even remotely similar proportions.
Some groups, such as the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, are aghast. They and others argue that the Washington skyline, with its strict building height limitations and uniquely historical national structures such as the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol building, would be dominated and severely defaced by such a towering building. It is a reasonable argument that deserves consideration. Unfortunately, it has been put in stinging denunciatory terms ("It's an architectural obscenity!") likely to make it hard for Prince George's officials or the developer to discuss changes, rather than to just dig in.
For Prince George's, PortAmerica will represent more than soaring tax revenues. The county is rightly tired of being referred to as the poor sister of the Washington suburbs, as Fairfax, Montgomery and Arlington counties, for example, tout their prime development projects. No one is arguing against the PortAmerica project itself, and we all share some pleasure at the thought of the prestige and the benefits it will bring. But why 52 stories? Does the developer want a structure that even dominates Mount Vernon and the Washington Monument?
Six years ago on this page, we argued that the beautiful view from the Mall across the river to Virginia and the Lee Mansion would be rudely broken by tall office buildings. Highly respected Washington-area figures, such as Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias, have similar concerns about the tower. One Mathias aide says the senator is concerned about the "aesthetic, historical and safety aspects" the tower raises. Its impact on the safe operation of National Airport should be considered. There are also questions about the project's effect on the already severely strained highways and roads in the area. But the Washington skyline is a matter of national importance. By all means, turn PortAmerica into a showcase development, but that can be done without a 52-story building.