Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Walking back down the pier at National Harbor after a ride on the Ferris wheel, something caught my eye: a lighthouse. More accurately, it was a miniature replica of a lighthouse set incongruously on top of a building whose brushed-chrome panels and greenish glass seemed to whisper luxury condos. And next to the little lighthouse, amazingly, there stood a woman gazing out toward Virginia, her skirt and scarf billowing in the breeze. It was a lovely day and the view up there must be great, but even so: What the hell was she doing?

I drew closer—almost in the shadow of the building—before I realized. The woman was a mannequin, a store-window prop draped in flowing garments. Welcome to National Harbor, where relentless fakery has somehow, in a few short years, birthed a real place.

When people in D.C. and its innermost suburbs talk about National Harbor, it’s often with a sense of confused annoyance. What is it, where is it, and why would anyone go there? I first visited back in 2008, when only a lonely row of buildings along the water and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, the largest hotel on the East Coast, occupied the space.

I returned last week to find a downtown jammed with people. Yes, National Harbor is cheesy and full of tourists. But it’s also home to a few thousand permanent residents. And taken on its own terms as a city-fragment devoted to fun, it works surprisingly well.

Located in southern Prince George’s County, in a crook of Potomac River shoreline just south of I-495 and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, National Harbor is the do-over of a redevelopment plan called Port America that died on the vine in the 1980s. The ultimate project is “a 350-acre resort destination,” according to its website, that “combines an approachable, resort-like personality with a singular, dynamic experience for local residents and visitors alike.”

As such breathless real estate speak suggests, National Harbor is not a downtown in the usual sense, but the fiefdom of a private developer, the Peterson Companies. That accounts for the comfort-food vibe of the place, how it offers up the flavors of a city in a way that your palate immediately recognizes, with nothing bitter or spicy to spoil your digestion.

The chefs know what they’re doing. Peterson led the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring in the 1990s, turning a shopping district that had seen better days into the nerve center of eastern Montgomery County. There are commonalities between Silver Spring’s Peterson precinct and National Harbor: the mall-like branding, the rent-a-cops, and even a square of AstroTurf like the one that Silver Spring loved and lost (Silver Spring’s was eventually replaced by a landscaped plaza, over protests).

But the developers have upped their game at National Harbor, recognizing the need to keep antsy conventioneers from hailing a cab to Alexandria or D.C. All manner of entertainment beckons: the Ferris wheel, a carousel, pedal boats, a mock pirate ship, outdoor movies, and dozens of restaurants. The mothership, of course, is the new MGM Casino up the road, which opened late last year.

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

National Harbor proper is the work of several architecture and planning firms, helmed by Development Design Group (architecture) and Sasaki & Associates (landscape architecture and environmental graphics). The buildings have a Control-C, Control-V look to them: red brick, yellow brick, balconies with scrolled railings, decorative cornices and crowns like cake toppers. They’re not unattractive, and they’re very good at concealing parking garages behind false fronts.

The spaces between and around the buildings are thoughtfully laid out. On Mariner Passage, I spotted a narrow pathway threading between two buildings and underneath a third through a low archway. Intrigued, I let the path pull me along until I emerged onto the two-block-long Main Street of National Harbor, American Way.

Barcelona it’s not, but I couldn’t help thinking of that city and its boulevards, with medians generous enough to support social life. The broad median of American Way is outfitted with benches and cafe tables and chairs. That afternoon, every last one was taken. Kids ran around a small playground. Teenagers posed for selfies with statues. Across from them, grown-ups sipped wine on a restaurant patio. The developers couldn’t have hoped for a better promo shot.

“This Is How You Harbor,” ads proclaim on the street corners, and apparently how you harbor is with a boatload of kitsch. There’s a garish painted statue of Rosie the Riveter, a giant inflated chick outside the Peeps store, and of course, the dwarf lighthouse with its eerie plastic inhabitant. That’s before you set foot inside the Gaylord, where faux colonial buildings are arranged like dollhouses under a vast glass roof.

The rise of privately-owned public space in American cities is a problematic trend, and very much at play here—personally, I’d prefer my Sunday stroll without a pitch for a timeshare. But just as teenagers used to hang out at Orange Julius in the Eighties and old folks still gather at McDonald’s to nurse coffees, highly commercialized environments can foster real social connection.

Urbanists ding National Harbor for its woeful lack of connectivity to the rest of P.G. County and D.C., and the criticism is deserved. The nearest Metro station is Huntington, four miles away and across the river in Virginia. The MGM casino is a mile away, but only someone with a death wish would try to walk or bike there along National Harbor Boulevard and the Beltway feeder road. National Harbor’s downtown, the casino, and the Tanger Outlets are islands. The developers have created an archipelago of destinations rather than a necklace.

Two Metrobus lines do service National Harbor, making it possible for some of the several thousand people who work there to commute without cars. Visitors complain about the high cost of parking ($3 an hour, going up to $18 for the day and $12 for the evening). Peterson should keep parking pricey, but make National Harbor’s circulator bus free and increase the frequency of the Metrobuses on the company’s dime. (The company already pays part of the cost of running the buses.)

On the crest of the hill behind the Gaylord, a metal fence cuts off a subdivision of new brownstones from an older suburban neighborhood. The roads of Oxon Hill don’t connect to National Harbor—there’s only one way in or out. This was a concession to locals concerned about traffic, but Balkanizing the area was a bad move, sheltering P.G. homeowners from inconvenience in the short term while cutting them off from waterfront access and real-estate gains in the long term.

After my outing (pro tip: skip the Ferris wheel and ride the Gaylord elevators for free to the 19th floor for the same view), the contrast I kept coming back to was with CityCenter DC. With its designer boutiques and minimalist architecture, CityCenter is tasteful where National Harbor is vulgar. Yet CityCenter feels like a ghost town and National Harbor is hopping.

The more exclusive D.C. becomes, I suspect, the more of a market there will be in its ever-growing suburbs for destinations where you can entertain a family without spending a fortune. P.G. County in particular has lacked these kind of destinations, causing its economic development to drag. National Harbor helps fill the gap, with better than average urban design internally, even if its connections to the world outside are lacking. Now, if only it would lay off the kitsch.