National Harbor

On the Waterfront

With the help of environmental graphics, urban design, and public art, National Harbor makes a lasting mark on a blighted stretch of the Potomac.

Think of Washington, D.C., and iconic landmarks such as the Washington Monument and the White House likely come to mind. So when developer Milton Peterson of The Peterson Companies bought a barren 300-acre parcel on the banks of the Potomac just south of these historic architectural giants, he envisioned a classic rather than trendy mixed-use development that would look like it had always been there.

Peterson’s vision was to create a waterfront for Washington, a vibrant district similar to Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous shopping street. When Peterson Companies bought the land in 1995, it was the third firm to try to develop the property, says Jeff T. Parana, vice president and development manager for National Harbor. Ultimately, Parana says, other developers lost the property because they couldn’t afford to develop it. But once Peterson had an anchor—Gaylord Entertainment Company committed to building a conference center adjacent to the property—plans for National Harbor were underway. The $4 billion project, more than a decade in the planning and making, opened in April 2008 and now includes retail, restaurants, residential and office space, and six hotels. Future phases call for participation by Disney and the National Children’s Museum.

Sasaki Associates joined the process early, thanks largely to Peterson’s longtime personal and professional relationship with Sasaki Principal Stu Dawson. When they first started talking about National Harbor, Dawson says he didn’t market Sasaki because it didn’t seem appropriate. But as the project unfolded, Peterson repeatedly turned to Sasaki for design and planning advice. Soon, the firm was involved in the site’s master plan, urban design and landscape architecture, environmental graphic design, and public art master plan.

Brian Pearce, a Sasaki senior associate, says National Harbor was an intensely personal project for Peterson. “He wanted a legacy project, something that was less about sales and more about a great place to live and visit—a waterfront for Washington.”

During the planning stages, Peterson worked with multiple firms without finding the right design for National Harbor. Before turning to Sasaki, the developer had gone through three master plans, multiple logo designs, and several EGD and landscape architecture proposals. Ultimately, Sasaki’s classic design sensibility—particularly its emphasis on boulevards and open spaces—hit the right note.

The American Way

The project was much like building a city from scratch, says Pearce. “It was a real architects’ convention, with up to six architects involved to ensure variety. Sasaki was like the connective tissue for all this different architecture, uniting it through a master landscape plan and a cohesive EGD program.”

Taking cues from Las Ramblas, Peterson worked with Sasaki to envision American Way, the 3,000-ft. pedestrian-oriented boulevard that leads to the water, overlooks National Plaza (which includes retail, residential, and restaurants), and essentially acts as National Harbor’s centerpiece.

“It was the big urban idea of the Champs Elysees, but with more topography,” Dawson says. Peterson visited a nursery and hand-selected mature trees to line the boulevard—much like an allee. The 35- to 45-ft.-tall plane trees lined the nursery’s driveway, but Peterson persuaded the owner to transplant them for American Way, creating an instant landscape and lending a sense of maturity to the new development overnight.

Again inspired by Las Ramblas, Peterson envisioned a no-holds-barred, multimillion-dollar public art component. “Even when it’s required, you don’t have that kind of emphasis on public art because it cuts right into the bottom line,” Dawson says. “But Peterson wanted it to be more than a developer’s dream—he wanted it to be a community dream.”

Among the approximately 45 works is The Awakening, a five-piece cast-aluminum sculpture by J. Seward Johnson Jr. that was transported from Haines Point in East Potomac Park. It depicts a giant human head and limbs that appear to be climbing out from the banks of the Potomac. Albert Paley contributed three sculptures, including an 85-ft.-tall weathering and painted steel entrance sculpture and two 4,500-lb., stainless-steel eagles that soar over the Potomac atop 60-ft. poles. Waterfront murals by Steven Weitzman and Cheryl Foster celebrate local lore and history, while stone sculptures from Albert Raitt’s Stoneyard landmark important pedestrian spaces on the site.

Nautical EGD

Peterson spent a lot of money and time working with other firms on the project’s EGD components, but wasn’t happy with the results. “National Harbor was meant to be nautical, but they never hit on the right theme,” explains Parana.

“We put [those concepts] in the trash, went back to Sasaki, and they came up with a wayfinding package we liked,” Parana says. “In our big mixed-use projects, if we can get 90 percent of our signage correct initially, we’ve done a pretty good job—and they’ve exceeded that.”

Sasaki started by tweaking National Harbor’s in-house designed logo. Peterson loved it, but Sasaki suggested ways to enhance it and ensure it reproduced well in three dimensions. The team changed the typeface to Copperplate, redrew the icon, and added boldness and balance to the mark. Sasaki also toned down the colors from a primary, Web-based blue and red to a more classic, muted, architectural navy blue and crimson. The logo’s nautical elements, such as a single mast and boom, inspired the design and fabrication of the signage program.

The EGD program begins with custom-designed, branded federal highway signage (Peterson personally financed a new exit off the highway) that directs motorists to the site from I-95/495. There is no primary identity signage for the development. While Sasaki did studies to explore what an entry sign would look like, in the end Peterson made the conscious decision that “the sign was not going to be the event,” says Pearce. Instead, visitors arriving on the site pass the Albert Paley sculpture The Beckoning amid swaying grasses and a densely planted birch grove.

“Milt wanted to create a classic, enduring, real place and he wanted to convey that through the streetscape, through EGD, and public art all working together,” Pearce explains.

The wayfinding program continues with vehicular signs directing visitors to the development’s four garages. Vehicular directionals feature a blue base and silver mast-like poles with custom finials, and incorporate real-time displays that indicate parking availability. Garage identifiers are halo-lit letters atop fabricated-aluminum canopies bearing the National Harbor logo.

Once out of the garages, visitors encounter pedestrian-oriented American Way. Strategically oriented to the waterfront, four large (11 ft. tall and 8 ft. in diameter), three-sided, internally illuminated pedestrian kiosks provide event information, detailed site maps, and a list of venues. Continuing the site’s nautical theme, they feature a cable-stayed glass canopy topped with an illuminated marker-light finial. Handrails of stainless steel and Brazilian mahogany can withstand saltwater, sun, wear, and tear. Powdercoated-aluminum, Matthews high-performance paints, and stainless steel fittings ensure durability.

Additional pedestrian directionals add visual interest and continuity on the riverwalk and, at the client’s request, playfully link the harbor with destinations like New York City, Miami, and Hollywood.

To take advantage of its visibility on Reagan National Airport’s flight paths, the National Harbor logo appears in 8-ft.-high letters on both piers. ad vice studios (Richmond, Va.), the project fabricator, made a rubber template for each letter and the contractor poured stained, colored concrete into the molds.

Navigating rough waters

It’s no surprise that on such a big project, challenges arose during the design, fabrication, and installation of the EGD program. “We were constantly coordinating with multiple firms on signage placement, and each had its own engineering firm,” says Pearce.

David Goodwin, president of ad vice studios, adds, “There were a lot of other folks on the site and sometimes, when we needed to install a wayfinding sign, a dump truck would be parked in that spot with nobody in it. All those things point back to one key to success: get the team together earlier than you think you should.”

Getting permits was another challenge, adds Goodwin. Where a typical permit might be approved in a few weeks, permit approval for National Harbor took several months. Fortunately, ad vice knew upfront it would be a long process and was able to complete the project on time and on budget anyway.

Of course, the biggest challenge for National Harbor has been staying the course despite a bumpy economy. It opened in April 2008— not exactly boom times in the U.S. However, Parana says the site is at about 70 percent occupancy, office leasing has been a bright spot, and the restaurants are doing phenomenally well.

“Right now National Harbor is more tourist-driven; it’s busy on the weekends and slower during the week,” says Parana. “Our goal is to make it a little residential town, like Georgetown, with views of all the things Washington has to offer.”

Sailing ahead

For all the players involved in National Harbor, the project has been a huge success. “You couldn’t ask for a better client,” Dawson says. “They were developer tough when they needed to be, they let us dream a lot, and they didn’t keep us from going beyond the norm. It was a great synergy.”

And for Dawson—who had an opportunity to help create a legacy project with a longtime friend—the project was also personally fulfilling. “Milt and I are the same age and the timing seemed right to do the best project of our careers,” he says. “I think the younger staff would have wanted us to step aside, but we were having too much fun to let them get too involved.”--

--By Jenny S. Reising, segdDESIGN No. 27, 2009



Location:  Prince Georges County, Md.

Client:  The Peterson Companies

Master Planning, Landscape Architecture, Public Art Master Planning, and Environmental Graphic Design:  Sasaki Associates

Design Team:  Stu Dawson (principal in charge), Mark Dawson (managing principal), Gina Ford (project manager/landscape architect), Brian Pearce (lead designer, EGD), Jeff Sprague (project manager, EGD); Dennis Pieprz, Beni Arapi, David Mittelstadt, Chuck Coronis, Jing Wu, Jose Miranda, Lauren Bryant, Jonathan Bryant, Sam Pease, Phil Thibadeau (designers)

Fabrication:  ad vice studios

Collaborators:  Clark Multi-Family Builders (contractor); Loiederman Soltesz Associates (civil engineering); EK Fox and Associates Ltd. (MEP); Carroll Engineering (structural engineering); LandDesign (landscape architecture and planning); TWS Design (local landscape architect); Design Island Associates, MRA International (thematic and events consulting); Sardi Design (harborwalk banners); Francoise Yohalem (art consultant); Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (lighting); Aquatic Design and Engineering (fountains); Davis, Carter, Scott Ltd. (architects); Lynch and Associates Ltd. (utilities)

Artists:  Albert Paley, Cheryl Foster, Steven Weitzman (Creative Design Resolutions), Albert Raitt (AW Raitt Stoneyard), J. Seward Johnson Jr.

Photos:  Edward Wonsek

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