National Harbor rises along the Potomac

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With its grand opening on April 25, we thought we would take a look back this week at some of the milestones of National Harbor’s growth over the past year, emerging from the shores of the Potomac as a dust pile to a gleaming small city.

The Phase I launch of National Harbor unveiled this month with the grand opening of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, and comes after three decades of lawsuits, stops and starts and public wrangling.

With an atrium and brick building loosely based on Old Town architecture, on April 1 the 2,000-room Gaylord National finally opened to eager conventioneers. Several thousand Saturn dealers from the United States and Canada poured in, using new ramps off I-495 and Interstate 295 that lead to the $2 billion development in Prince George’s County. Metrobus service to the site also debuted this week.

The long-anticipated water taxi service provided by Alexandria-based Potomac Riverboat Co. will start in a few weeks, according to Charlotte Hall, vice president of the company. Starting May 1, the service will run every half hour between those locations, and will be added from Georgetown to National Harbor every three hours from Tuesdays through Sundays. Potomac Riverboat’s water taxi service will cost $7 for a one-way ticket and $14 for round-trip tickets between National Harbor and Old Town. Only round-trip tickets will be sold from Georgetown, and they will cost $28 from Tuesday to Thursday and $30 from Friday to Sunday.

In addition to the opening of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, two other hotels will also open in mid- to late April at National Harbor. Eventually, about seven million square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space will fill out the Peterson Companies development.

The $865 million Gaylord hotel is the anchor tenant of the $2 billion, 300-acre development along the Potomac, which Fairfax developer Milt Peterson hopes will become a mini-city of high-class retail outlets and dining options.  One of the first restaurants to open will be a McCormick and Schmicks seafood restaurant this spring. By next spring, Peterson Cos. officials expect that about two dozen stores and restaurants will be in operation at National Harbor.

The first guests at the Gaylord National Tuesday paid $299 a night for their rooms, and exhibitors with the Army Aviation Association of America are expected to fly in by helicopter later this week, actually landing on the site and becoming the first group to fill the hotel to capacity. Don’t expect to call up and get a room: The hotel is fully committed until early May.

On April 25, the Nashville-based company will be hosting a black-tie dinner for its grand opening of what will be Gaylords fourth hotel. Over the next year, five more hotels and condo towers will open, joining the high-end boutiques and restaurants.

The project was known as PortAmerica, a waterfront residential and office complex that was to feature a skyscraper overlooking the river. But environmentalists held up the permits and approvals, and the FAA expressed concerns that the 52-story building would block planes landing at National Airport, down the river.

When PortAmerica filed for bankruptcy, Milton V. Peterson, a Fairfax builder who had once developed downtown Silver Spring and Tysons Corner Mall, snapped up the land in 1996 and announced a collaboration with Gaylord in 2003.

About 450 condos being built for the first phase are already 90 percent sold out, according to Peterson Cos. officials, and Gaylord’s John Caparellas said the hotel has confirmed 1.3 million bookings at the hotel through 2018.

With the National Children’s Museum moving to the site in 2012, Gaylord and Peterson Cos. officials say they are more optimistic than ever that National Harbor will be one of the most major destinations along the eastern seaboard.

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