After years of watching its neighbors pull in the prime development projects, Prince George's County has just begun to win some of its own. So county officials have been understandably pleased over their most recent plum: the $1 billion PortAmerica project and its 52-story office tower.
Last week, when some neighboring jurisdictions and national politicians fired potshots at the PortAmerica tower, Prince George's didn't take it lightly.
"We're angry because we're being picked on now that we've got this marvelous project," said County Council member Jo Ann T. Bell. "No one said anything to anyone about the building that went on in Virginia. Now all of a sudden that Prince George's County is doing it bigger and better, everyone's gotten jealous."
Bell's wrath was inspired Tuesday, when Sen. Alan Cranston (D- Calif.) introduced legislation that would chop down the tower to 14 stories or tax the developer $570 million for exceeding new height restrictions.
Hours after Cranston introduced his bill, the Alexandria City Council expressed "utmost concern" about the traffic, noise and air safety problems that could accompany the tower, which would become one of the tallest buildings between New York and Atlanta.
A day later, at a meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the proposed tower was criticized again, although the council agreed to oppose federal intervention in a local jurisdiction's zoning.
And Thursday, a bill similar to Cranston's was introduced in the House by another California Democrat, Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark.
The PortAmerica project and its tower, which would sit on the shore of the Potomac River just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, has prompted a medley of creative rhetoric from both its supporters and detractors.
County Council Chairman William Amonett has called it "probably one of the most important projects in America today."
One of its two architects, New Yorker John Burgee, said of the tower: "It's more than an office building . . . . We're building a cathedral of commerce."
But Cranston, who contends the tower will overwhelm the Washington skyline, likened the structure to a "glass monster," and Stark compared its construction to "carving Mickey Mouse at Mount Rushmore or converting the Alamo into a taco stand."
One Alexandria official was heard to lightheartedly threaten to fire a cannon at the building. And Virginia Del. Marian Van Landingham, whose district includes part of Alexandria, described the tower as "one-upmanship over the nation's monuments . . . . The national monuments will become minor against the hubris, the pride, of this developer."
Van Landingham, who represents Northern Virginia at the Council of Governments and who was the most adamant of several members who criticized the tower during last week's council meeting, dismissed the contention by Prince George's officials that the opposition was sour grapes.
"I don't think any of us are jealous of this. No way would we want it," she said. And she described as "dangerous" the possibility that Prince George's "now feels they have to catch up and show the other areas" by building the tallest tower around.
Prince George's County leaders acknowledge they are exceedingly proud that this tower will be noticed.
When two federal panels went on record opposing the project and complained that the building would be visible from various historic points, including a White House balcony, council member Bell responded, "How neat. The president of the United States will go out on the back porch and say, 'Ah yes, Prince George's.' "
Like others in the county, she is fuming at efforts to diminish this prize. She describes her attitude toward opponents in neighboring jurisdictions as, simply, "How dare you tell me I can't be as good as you are?"
County Executive Parris Glendening released a statement saying that Cranston is being "callously used by forces" who want to interject federal law into private enterprise. He went on to suggest that those forces were the nearby jurisdictions, saddled with vacant commercial property and unhappy at the prospect of 1.7 million square feet of office space going up across the river.
Prince George's council Chairman Amonett says he just wants the other jurisdictions to act like "ladies and gentlemen."
"They apparently expected Prince George's County's shore to remain pristine so they could look at it," he said, noting that "we have to look every day" at development along the western shore of the Potomac.
He added, with some exasperation: "We have gone through many years of very difficult problems here in Prince George's County. It's our turn. To think someone would try to stand in our way . . . it's outrageous."