Saturday, July 24, 2010

National Harbor, MD--A Visit To The Twilight Zone

A recent trend in shopping center development is the outdoor "mall" where the center is laid out in street grid form, kind of like the old downtown Main Street shopping areas. A good example of this is the Americana in Glendale, a highly successful shopping (actually mixed use) area built on faux streets which do not appear in the Thomas guide.

Such a center exists along the Potomac River in Maryland, no more than 10 miles south of downtown Washington D.C. National Harbor is the Americana and more, the more being a number of convention sized hotels, full to the brim with people like myself attending business meetings. So why, then, are the streets of National Harbor deserted and its trendy stores and restaurants virtually devoid of patrons?

At first I thought that National Harbor had just opened up. However it's already been open for over 2 years, so that's not the explanation. As I walked the deserted streets, I also noticed that while there were plenty of higher end stores and restaurants such as Fossil, Godiva Chocolates, Dolce Restaurants, Rosa Mexicano, there wasn't anything in the way of ordinary retail--no chain drug stores (though one is under construction), no place to buy groceries (though a gourmet store is promised), no familiar casual or fast food dining options. Maybe I had fallen into an episode of the Twilight Zone that I hadn't remembered.

Part of the explanation is the weather. Crowds of people do come to the hotels of National Harbor for business meetings, but when it's 95 degrees and humid, none of them have any desire to step outside to explore the neighborhood, even if it is immediately adjacent. But the main problem seems to be the demographics. The closest housing to National Harbor (aside from the high end condos currently being peddled there) is apparently of the Section 8 ilk. The closest part of Washington D.C., is the Southeast quadrant, clearly the sketchiest part of the city. While crossing the border into Maryland does present a visually more suburban environment, the demographics are still working class. A more likely customer base lies on the other side of the Potomac in Arlington, VA, but there's no bridge over the river and you have to take a water taxi between the two.

Maybe there's more activity in National Harbor on weekends. Maybe there's more activity when it isn't so hot and humid. Maybe there will be more activity when the Cirque de Soleil theater opens up in a few weeks. Or maybe National Harbor was a bad idea built at a bad time.

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