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Posts about National Harbor


A bus between National Harbor, the MGM casino, and Alexandria? It could happen.

With Metro's help, Prince George's County and Alexandria are testing a bus route from National Harbor to a number of key commuting spots in Alexandria. The NH2 would link new Prince George's developments and would make it easier for workers and visitors to get across the Potomac.

Route and service details of the proposed NH2 bus from Virginia to National Harbor. Image from WMATA.

The route would run from National Harbor to the soon-to-open MGM Casino, then to the Oxon Hill Park and Ride and across the river to the Huntington and King Street Metro stations. It'd run every half hour between the above locations, from 6 am to 1 am daily.

If the WMATA board subcommittee that's considering the proposal approves it, the pilot would last from October 2016 to June 2017, after which WMATA staff would evaluate whether the route was worth keeping around. If they think the route is worth keeping, it would become a regular part of the Metrobus network. That could happen as soon as July 2017, at the start of Metro's FY2018 budget year.

The test is expected to cost around $2.175 million, which would be covered by bus fares, a mixture of money from Prince George's County, Maryland's Department of Transportation, the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and $500,000 from National Harbor's developer, the Peterson Group.

A full year of service would cost closer to $2.9 million, which would be covered by the same pots of money as the pilot.

The proposal document up for review on Thursday says the jurisdictions expressed interest in creating the cross-Potomac service, which could ultimately bring more people (and their spending money) to both areas.

The NH1 is the only bus currently serving National Harbor, although several others have stops nearby. The route connects National Harbor to Southern Avenue Metro station (and then served Branch Avenue instead for a time before being restored following an outcry). Both would service the Oxon Hill Park and Ride.

Existing NH1 bus route to National Harbor from the Southern Avenue Metro station.

This pilot isn't the first time Metro has experimented with bus service connecting National Harbor to the region's transit network. Back in 2013, Metro proposed rerouting the NH1 line to run across the Woodrow Wilson bridge to Old Town Alexandria and serve the King Street station, as Matt' Johnson wrote back in 2013, somewhat similar to what's now being proposed. However, that proposal didn't move forward at the time.

However, the NH2 route is being proposed now with a large casino expected to draw in thousands to the area, which means the ridership numbers could be significantly different. The MGM development expected to open later in November will have two convention centers, the casino, a hotel, restaurants, and a 3,000-seat theater.


Metro proposes new Wilson Bridge bus service

As part of its round of service changes for June 2014, Metro has proposed rerouting the NH1 line, which serves National Harbor, to run across the Wilson Bridge to Old Town Alexandria. The new service could help connect communities on both sides of the Potomac that aren't always easy to go between by transit.

Existing bus service to National Harbor. Map by the author.

Two routes serve National Harbor today: the Metrobus express NH1 between the Branch Avenue Metro station and National Harbor, and the Prince George's County Transit route 35 between Southern Avenue Metro and National Harbor.

Metro's proposal would instead send the NH1 to King Street station in Alexandria. The distance between National Harbor and Branch Avenue is about the same as to King Street. But King Street is located in a much more vibrant area than Branch Avenue, meaning guests and residents of National Harbor may find the altered routing of the NH1 more helpful.

Proposed bus service to National Harbor. Map by the author.

Workers at National Harbor who live on the Virginia side of the Potomac will also benefit greatly from this service. Those who live in Maryland or Southeast Washington will still have access to Southern Avenue via route 35. During late evenings and weekends, when the 35 does not run, the NH1 will also serve Southern Avenue.

Repeating history
When bus service first began at National Harbor, the service operated from Southern Avenue. This was an important link for workers at the isolated resort. Southern Avenue station has more bus lines, and is more convenient to neighborhoods in Southeast Washington.

But in 2009, Metro rerouted the bus to Branch Avenue at the request of National Harbor. Some argued that this was so visitors wouldn't have to transfer at Southern Avenue, which is located in a less affluent area. With a more express routing over the Beltway, workers were now forced to travel farther out of the way using multiple bus lines or the more expensive Green Line to reach the NH1.

In response, Prince George's started the 35, which restored the connection to Southern Avenue and stops in the neighborhoods along the way.

Virginia connection

In addition to linking National Harbor and Alexandria, the rerouted NH1 has the ability to restore a service lost in 2004. Prior to June of that year, the N11 and N13 routes linked Branch Avenue and Suitland stations to King Street. This allowed riders from southern Prince George's to easily reach jobs in Alexandria, while residents of Alexandria could reach jobs at the Suitland Federal Center without going downtown.

These routes only ran during rush hour. The N11 connected Branch Avenue to Alexandria in the morning and the N13 connected Alexandria to Suitland. The buses ran the opposite direction in the afternoon.

Without those lines, riders now have to ride all the way to L'Enfant Plaza and change. Many people making the commute probably drive the shorter distance over the Wilson Bridge instead.

The NH1 will not completely restore this convenient connection. However, it will allow riders to use transit between Southern Avenue and King Street by using the Prince George's 35 and the NH1 and transferring at the Oxon Hill Park and Ride. Riders from other routes running along Indian Head Highway, which include the D13, D14, P17, P18, P19, W15, and W19 routes, will also have that option.

Ridership on the N11 and N13 was apparently not high enough to justify the lines back in 2004. However, transit connections across the Potomac outside of downtown would shorten trips for many riders.

If the NH1 is successful in attracting riders, hopefully Metro will consider adding other routes to connect destinations across the Potomac from each other.


National Harbor's colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called Port America, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

Port America. All images from Burgee-Jonhson.

By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.

The original plan for Port America dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor's waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now under-construction to become an outlet mall.

The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region's current tallest office building, Rosslyn's 384-foot 1812 North Moore.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Prince George's shouldn't gamble public money on casinos

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker recently took a bold, yet controversial, step by identifying National Harbor as the one site where the county would support building a casino. Now, he should add an additional rule: any gaming deal must happen with no public subsidy.

Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr.

Maryland's gaming law currently allows for only 5 video slot casinos throughout the state. This legislative session, State Sen. Douglas J. J. Peters (D-Prince George's) introduced a bill to allow a 6th casino in southwestern Prince George's County, near Rosecroft Raceway and National Harbor. This bill would also let the casino include table games, such as blackjack, craps, and poker.

As currently drafted, most of the county's public officials oppose the bill. Likewise, Governor Martin O'Malley has given the overall effort to expand gambling in the state a fairly chilly reception.

The bill would make a new and much-needed regional hospital dependent on building the casino, a link that Baker specifically opposes. On the positive side, the bill would dedicate a portion of the gambling profits to the county's economic development incentive fund and education trust fund.

Baker was right to specify National Harbor as preferred choice for a casino

County Executive Baker says the casino should locate at National Harbor, because that picturesque Potomac River site would be a better draw for tourists than Rosecroft Raceway. Also, the existing transportation infrastructure would better support the anticipated traffic, and impose less of a burden on traditionally residential areas.

National Harbor. Photo by Geoff Livingston on Flickr.

By making the specific proposal for National Harbor, Baker is attempting to provide some much-needed local perspective and guidance in this brewing debate. Any casino that comes to Prince George's must be "high-end," Baker says. He wants the developer to invest $1 billion in the facility, to ensure it doesn't become a low-grade "slots barn."

State Senate president Thomas "Mike" Miller, whose support for Rosecroft Raceway is well known, rejected Baker's expression of support for National Harbor, and also opposes decoupling the casino from funding the county's new regional hospital.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Baker's decision, it's exactly the type of decisive action that the head of county government should take in this kind of situation. Indeed, this is the very type of action that I recently called for the county to take in its effort to lobby the GSA to relocate the FBI's headquarters to Prince George's.

Just as the county will ultimately be better served by articulating a specific site and vision for any new casino (e.g., National Harbor vs. Rosecroft Raceway; "high-end" vs. "slots barn"), so will it be better served by recommending to the GSA a preferred site for the relocation of the FBI headquarters, like the Morgan Boulevard Metro Station area.

Casino must not receive public subsidies

To ensure that the county wins and doesn't "crap out" on this move to bring Vegas to the Potomac, it must insist that not one penny of public money goes to assist the developers or the property owners at National Harbor in constructing the casino.

No tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, special assessment districts, public bond issues, or tax breaks—nothing. If expensive roadways, overpasses, and parking garages have to be built to accommodate the additional anticipated vehicle traffic, they must be fully funded and guaranteed by the developers.

Additionally, to alleviate the need for at least some of the expensive roadways and parking garages, the developers must be required to contribute a substantial sum to improve the public transit connections to National Harbor.

And no, this does not mean bringing Metro or the Purple Line to National Harbor. That would entail significant amounts of public expense that the county cannot afford right now. Frequent express bus service between National Harbor and one or more of the existing Metro stations should suffice.

This "no public subsidy" stance is important for several reasons. First, regardless of whether it is actually true, the county simply cannot afford the negative perception that this casino project is just the latest in a series of Upper Marlboro- or Annapolis-brokered developer sweetheart deals fueled by corruption, political favoritism, or some other under-the-table influence.

For example, people are already asking whether Sen. Miller's vociferous support for Rosecroft Raceway over National Harbor is the result of an off-the-grid deal between the senator and Penn National Gaming, the organization that recently bought the Rosecroft property out of bankruptcy.

To combat any perception of payoffs, bribery, or any other undue influence, this casino deal needs to be a squeaky-clean, completely above-board process that does not involve government handouts of any variety.

Second, this stance is consistent with the county's stated (albeit rarely followed) policy of incentivizing transit-oriented development and neighborhood revitalization efforts around its 15 Metro stations and in surrounding inner-Beltway communities.

In 2010, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission launched a comprehensive, countywide community planning effort called "Envision Prince George's." Among the Envision recommendations (which were subsequently adopted and endorsed by the County Council) was the position that the county should focus 66% of its future growth around its 15 Metro stations and other densely-populated, inner-Beltway corridors.

To ensure that the county meets its TOD goals, Envision recommended that the county "[a]lign public expenditure policies and Capital Improvement Program (CIP) items with the goal of encouraging development in these areas and discouraging further sprawl development in other areas of the County."

Public funding of a National Harbor casino, both far away from a Metro station and outside the Beltway, is simply inconsistent with the county's stated TOD policies.

Third, the casino doesn't need public investment or subsidies. A casino is a natural moneymaker. If you build it, people will come, and they will spend a lot of money. Baker has rightly proposed that, in exchange for building a higher-quality casino, the developers should keep a larger share of the profits than the current 33% provided in state law, and possibly even greater than the 40% proposed by Senator Peters in SB 892.

Prince George's County certainly doesn't need a casino to be economically viable. But having one wouldn't necessarily be the worst thing in the world, either—as long as the county doesn't put any money on the table to get it.


Retailers are embracing urbanism with zeal

As enclosed malls continue to decline and close, more and more retailers are opting to locate in pedestrian-friendly urban districts.

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

3 years ago, I expressed sentiments that the car-oriented shopping mall was a business model with no future. The events since have offered further proof that retailers and customers now prefer an urban format, at least in our region.

Recent news that Bloomingdale's in White Flint and Macy's in Laurel will close has little to do with the sales performance of those stores, and everything to do with their host malls being unable to survive. Both have been visibly declining for years, and will soon be redeveloped into mixed-use walkable urban places.

The Laurel Macy's has managed to remain open for years despite much of its host mall being shuttered. That store would likely have closed years ago if it wasn't making money, especially in the wake of the Great Recession.

Similarly, if it had not been profitable the White Flint Bloomingdale's would have closed in 2007 when another location of the luxury retailer opened a mere 3 Metro stations away.

Within the Favored Quarter, the most economically competitive and healthy part of our region, only the largest and most dynamic enclosed malls are continuing to thrive. The rest are slowly dying.

In Maryland, Montgomery Mall is the most vibrant, while in Virginia the Tysons cluster reigns supreme.

When the White Flint redevelopment plan was approved in 2010, it provided the owners of White Flint Mall the opportunity to earn a healthier profit by giving the market more of what it wants: walkable urbanism.

Elsewhere in the region the malls are doing as bad or worse. Most have either closed or are in the process of being converted to walkable town centers.

Arlington has had success turning the area around its two enclosed malls into mixed-use towns, first at Ballston and now at Pentagon City, where the process is still under way.

In Fairfax, Springfield Mall is slated for redevelopment, and Fair Oaks Mall is actively considering a mixed-use future.

In Prince George's County, the area around the Mall at Prince George's (formerly Prince George's Plaza) has been undergoing a process similar to Pentagon City. At Bowie Town Center, County officials are looking at adding more entertainment and housing options.

Meanwhile, urban shopping areas that I mentioned three years ago have increased in prominence:

In the District of Columbia, there are four shopping districts that support clusters of national retail chains that are usually mall-based: Downtown (Old Downtown clustered around Metro Center), Connecticut Avenue between Farragut Square and Dupont Circle, Friendship Heights, and Georgetown. Columbia Heights is emerging and has a different mix of retailers.
Urban-format suburban shopping districts also continue to thrive and grow.

Silver Spring's retail is more vibrant than ever. The space vacated by Borders was quickly filled by Smart Toys. Bethesda and Clarendon are continually adding to their mixture of chains and smaller upscale retailers. Wheaton is a work in progress.

Even outside the Beltway, urbanism is catching on. Rockville Town Square and Gaithersburg's Washingtonian Center are growing, and National Harbor is setting the standard for Prince George's County. Two decades ago, all those developments likely would have been enclosed malls.

While purely car-dependent malls aren't going to go completely extinct, they are becoming far more rare. In the future, it is likely the only enclosed malls that remain will be the largest super-regional "winners" inside the Favored Quarter. Meanwhile, no new malls are planned.

As the 21st Century continues, both living and dead mall sites will be either be completely redeveloped or will evolve into mixed-use walkable urban places. Retailers will continue clustering at transit-oriented, walkable urban locations, both downtown and at new suburban "uptowns."

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