WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: National Harbor residents enjoy close proximity to shops and restaurants, shown here on Sunday, July 10. (Photo by Amy Reinink/For The Washington Post) (Amy Reinink/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

As Laura Hickman watched National Harbor rise along the eastern bank of the Potomac River a few years ago during her daily commutes across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, she thought: Someday that’s going to be a great place to live.

“I remember walking around there when they first built the Gaylord [hotel], and there were only one or two shops open,” said Hickman, 53, an Air Force officer. “It was a ghost town, but you could tell it had potential.”

Several years later, Hickman lives in one of the three luxury condominium buildings at National Harbor. The buildings are part of a massive mixed-use development of hotels, restaurants and shops in Prince George’s County just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Alexandria. Hickman said her condo, which offers sweeping views of the Potomac River and the dozens of shops and restaurants now open, “lives up to my every expectation and more.”

Hickman is one of many early residents at National Harbor who say they relished the opportunity to be part of something brand new.

National Harbor’s shops, restaurants and bars began to open in April 2008, with the first residents moving into its condo buildings that October.

Nick Nayak, who lives next door to Hickman, said residents shared “a real family feeling” from the beginning.

“Even in two short years, we’ve found a sense of community here,” said Nayak, 46, chief procurement officer at the Department of Homeland Security. “People go out of their way to say hello and to get to know each other by name.”

Dennis Kunselman, who was National Harbor’s director of sales until early 2010 and owns a condo there, said that sense of community has increased as more people moved in.

“In the beginning, there were only a handful of residents,” said Kunselman, who is now a real estate agent and has sold several homes at National Harbor. “People kind of felt like they were there all alone. Now, it’s starting to become more of a community. Residents do potluck dinners together, or meet for happy hour at the bars.”

Rocell R. Viniard, vice president and director of marketing for National Harbor, said roughly 85 percent of National Harbor’s 423 condos have sold since 2007, though some of those sales have not been finalized. Nearly all of the development’s 46 townhouses have sold, and 16 of the sales have closed.

The development’s first phase will also include four single-family houses, Viniard said. Its second phase will include 41 more townhouses slated to go on sale this summer. Future plans call for a total of 2,500 residential units, including an apartment building, Viniard said.

In 2007, National Harbor tried to secure its own Zip code, but it was left with Oxon Hill’s 20745.

Nayak, who has lived in and around Oxon Hill for more than 30 years, said the upscale mixed-use development created a sense of excitement in the surrounding communities.

“I think the net effect for the community has been very positive,” said Nayak, who attended Oxon Hill High School. “Who doesn’t want new development that’s interesting and new in their area?”

Nayak said he and other National Harbor residents were also drawn to the development’s proximity to the Potomac River, which is visible from a variety of places in his building, including the rooftop pool and a large community room.

Tarick Gamay, 26, who moved into a townhouse at National Harbor last month, said he and his wife were attracted to “the natural landscape” around the harbor.

“There are very few neighborhoods in the Washington area, if any, that have a view of the water, plenty of greenery and paths for running or walking” the way National Harbor does, said Gamay, business development manager at DreamPak.

Gamay said he also likes that National Harbor “feels like a vacation resort more than a
suburban or residential area,” thanks to its neatly maintained landscaping, its restaurants with outdoor seating, and its music and light displays at sunset each evening.

Hickman said she likes walking down to the waterfront and sitting by “The Awakening,” the iconic sculpture that was moved from Hains Point to National Harbor, to people-watch.

“It really is like living at a resort,” Hickman said. “When I get home after a long day’s work, it’s like I get to go on a mini-vacation.”

The downside to the resort-like feel: Upscale boutiques outnumber stores offering basic services, which is “great for tourists but less than ideal for local residents,” Gamay said.

Downsides also include traffic backups during special events, which can make it difficult to get into or out of the development, residents said.

But residents said the ability to walk to bars, restaurants and other entertainment makes it easy to stay put.

“When people get home, they can park their cars and forget about them,” Kunselman said. “It’s a great lifestyle.”

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.