Grand Vi­sion for Na­tional Har­bor Takes Form

Mov­ing ‘The Awak­en­ing’ Sculp­ture Is Just the Start for $2 Bil­lion Ven­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Anita Huslin

Milt Peter­son looks upon the artist ren­der­ings of Na­tional Har­bor with the crit­i­cal eye of a gen­eral. It’s like noth­ing Wash­ing­ton has ever seen.

Sail-shaped ban­ners line the Po­tomac wa­ter­front, with mov­ing images pro­jected on the fab­ric. A re­tractable, 42-foot video screen stretches be­tween two masts for out­door movies. Stone­henge-like boul­ders al­ter­nate with larger-thanlife bronze stat­ues along the prom­e­nade lead­ing to the wa­ter. In his mind’s eye, Peter­son sees con­certs, sail­boat races, sun­set cruises, fire- works, maybe even wa­ter bal­let.

Un­til now, the piece de re­sis­tance of his Na­tional Har­bor project has been a care­fully guarded se­cret. In the com­ing months, the out­door sculp­ture “The Awak­en­ing” will be dug up from Hains Point, its home for the past 27 years, then barged and trucked to an undis­closed lo­ca­tion where it will be cleaned and re­stored.

Then, the 70-foot work, which de­picts a gi­ant strug­gling to emerge from the earth, will be planted in a new sandy beach on the other side of the Po­tomac River. “There’ll be steps go­ing down, and

there’ll be Char­lie, on the beach,” Peter­son says, sweep­ing his arms open wide like Vanna White, and tilt­ing his 6-foot-2, lanky frame back in his of­fice chair. “That’s what I call putting the fat chicken on the front hook.”

Af­ter a life­time of build­ing sub­ur­ban sub­di­vi­sions, of­fice parks and shop­ping cen­ters and malls, Peter­son, 71, is about to make his big­gest and per­haps most in­deli­ble mark on the sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton land­scape. A year from now, he will un­veil the first phase of a $2 bil­lion streetscape of white-table­cloth din­ing, re­tail, ex­ec­u­tive of­fices and lux­ury wa­ter­front homes at the south­ern tip of Prince Ge­orge’s County. There’ll be wa­ter taxis to and from Alexan­dria and the Dis­trict, sight­see­ing tours and a pub­lic ma­rina.

On a re­cent spring morn­ing, Peter­son flies in his per­sonal jet up to Rochester to meet with the artist who is cre­at­ing the 85-foot steel sculp­ture for Na­tional Har­bor’s en­trance. It will set the tone for the place, like the Statue of Lib­erty, he says. Peo­ple will see it com­ing off the Wil­son Bridge, curled and rip­pling steel ris­ing sky­ward, like a Tech­ni­color bea­con to the har­bor.

“We’re putting some­thing fab­u­lous on the river that says it’s spe­cial,” he says. “It’s go­ing to be POW! It’s go­ing to be ex­plo­sive! We’re go­ing to change Wash­ing­ton.”

Build­ing a Rep­u­ta­tion

Peter­son, who lives in Fair­fax, be­gan mak­ing a name for him­self al­most as soon as he moved to North­ern Vir­ginia af­ter col­lege with his child­hood sweet­heart and wife, Carolyn. As a lieu­tenant in the Army Corps of En­gi­neers, he worked for Stephen Yeonas, one of the big­gest de­vel­op­ers in the grow­ing re­gion. In a short time, Peter­son be­came the first sales­man to sur­pass the $1-mil­lion-a-year mark. By 23, he was run­ning the en­tire sales force.

Strik­ing out on his own, he be­gan build­ing small town­house de­vel­op­ments, even­tu­ally part­ner­ing with a young at­tor­ney, John T. “Til” Hazel, who re­mem­bers Peter­son’s in­sis­tence on carv­ing out sites for churches, rais­ing con­struc­tion money and de­vel­op­ing the sites when lo­cal con­gre­ga­tions formed.

Peter­son’s gre­gar­i­ous, folksy per­son­al­ity charmed skep­tics, re­calls Hazel, now a prom­i­nent North­ern Vir­ginia real es­tate de­vel­oper, and en­abled him to reach ac­com­mo­da­tions with op­po­nents. He made a name build­ing com­mu­ni­ties with shop­ping and of­fice parks such as Fair Lakes and Burke Cen­ter in Vir­ginia. His com­pany also re­de­vel­oped down­town Sil­ver Spring.

Peter­son has spent mil­lions in more than a decade since he bought the Na­tional Har­bor site to build a legacy where oth­ers have tried and failed.

The foot­ings of de­vel­oper James T. Lewis’s PortAmer­ica, which was thwarted by per­mit trou­bles, fed­eral and lo­cal op­po­si­tion and ul­ti­mately, fi­nan­cial prob­lems, lie be­neath the earth un­der Na­tional Har­bor. Lewis had bought the prop­erty from de­vel­oper James H. Burch, who in the early 1980s had pro­posed but failed to pro­duce Bay of Amer­ica, a mix of town­houses and of­fices that he said at the time would be “more vis­i­ble than even Tysons Cor­ner.”

To cir­cum­vent the op­po­si­tion the ear­lier projects at­tracted from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and reg­u­la­tory agen­cies, Peter­son lob­bied in the late 1990s to have ju­ris­dic­tion over the project shifted to Prince Ge­orge’s County from the Mary­landNa­tional Cap­i­tal Parks and Plan­ning Com­mis­sion. It took three years and tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in lob­by­ing costs, but Congress com­plied. The state also kicked in nearly $300 mil­lion in aid. The jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to county doc­u­ments, was the es­ti­mated $1.8 bil­lion in tax ben­e­fits from Na­tional Har­bor.

Peter­son had built more than 40,000 homes and 18 mil­lion square feet of com­mer­cial space in North­ern Vir­ginia, but in­ter­est in Na­tional Har­bor has been greater than any­thing he has done in his 50 years as a de­vel­oper.

Pres­sured by Prince Ge­orge’s of­fi­cials, he es­tab­lished a 30 per­cent mi­nor­ity busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion in the project. Peter­son also agreed to spend $3.5 mil­lion over 10 years on com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives, a com­mit­ment that caused him headaches when The Post re­ported this month that money was given to groups that hadn’t ap­plied for it.

Nev­er­the­less, Peter­son is closer to mak­ing this project a re­al­ity than any de­vel­oper be­fore him. Four ho­tels, three of­fice build­ings, three res­i­den­tial build­ings, five restau­rants and 4,500 park­ing spa­ces are well un­der­way. The flag­ship Gay­lord ho­tel, a crit­i­cal an­chor to the de­vel­op­ment, has al­ready booked nearly 900,000 room nights and next week will top off its 10-story build­ing.

To make all this hap­pen, Peter­son jumped through ev­ery hoop he saw. Even then, he hasn’t al­ways got­ten his way.

Ear­lier this spring, his com­pany re­quested a state liquor per­mit that would al­low Na­tional Har­bor guests to stroll parts of the grounds with cock­tails in hand. A Prince Ge­orge’s County of­fi­cial ex­pressed un­hap­pi­ness that he heard about the mea­sure in­di­rectly. His of­fice sum­moned Peter­son to pro­vide de- tails of the pro­posal — per­son­ally.

Peter­son re­calls the mo­ment with a fur­rowed brow, pauses, then slaps his thigh and drawls, “Come on, boy, gid­dyup!” lam­poon­ing the of­fi­cial.

He laughs now at the me­mory. “I said, ‘Cer­tainly, sir. Right away, sir.’ ” Then he sits back in his leather chair and takes a long slug of scotch. A low growl rum­bles from his throat. “That’s busi­ness.”

A Chang­ing Land­scape

“The Awak­en­ing” has been part of the Wash­ing­ton land­scape for so long that it is widely con­sid­ered pub­lic prop­erty. Artist J. Se­ward John­son in­stalled it at Hains Point in 1980 as part of an in­ter­na­tional sculp­ture con­fer­ence. He had wanted to do­nate it, but the Na­tional Park Ser­vice could not ac­cept site­spe­cific art gifts, ac­cord­ing to Paula Stoeke, di­rec­tor of the Sculp­ture Foun­da­tion, which ul­ti­mately took ti­tle to the piece and main­tained it. “The piece has en­joyed such an af­fec­tion­ate re­la­tion­ship with the com­mu­nity and vis­i­tors to Wash­ing­ton over the years,” she said.

Peter­son is among its many ad­mir­ers. Sev­eral years ago, he saw an item in the pa­per about the sculp­ture be­ing for sale. He bought it re­cently for about $750,000, sign­ing a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment with the foun­da­tion not to dis­close the pur­chase. It is un­clear what, if any­thing, may take its place on Hains Point, but John­son re­cently wrote in a let­ter to Peter­son: “I have re­viewed the plans made for the lo­ca­tion and I think it will be per­fect . . . Char­lie, as I un­der­stand he is now dubbed, should be very happy in his new home.”

Mov­ing the sculp­ture away from the Dis­trict could cre­ate a stir, Peter­son re­al­izes. That’s ex­actly what he’s look­ing for.

You want it to be con­tro­ver­sial, he says. Provoca­tive. The worst thing would be no re­ac­tion at all. Peter­son wants to throw in some his­tory at Na­tional Har­bor, too, and is talk­ing to an artist about mak­ing a trio of sculp­tures that tell how sur­veyor Ben­jamin Ban­neker, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton and Thomas Jef­fer­son helped de­sign the Dis­trict. Though plans change daily, he’s think­ing the pieces will look good gaz­ing be­yond the two, 750foot piers and the party tent to­ward the Dis­trict. Bob Weis, se­nior vice pres­i­dent at Walt Dis­ney Imag­i­neer­ing, is ad­vis­ing on the sculp­tures.

“We need to be emo­tional and pa­tri­otic and fam­ily-ori­ented,” Weis said. “It’s not go­ing to be Dis­ney­land, but it’s not Wil­liams­burg ei­ther.”

Peter­son is clearly pleased by mod­els of the two stain­less-steel ea­gles that will soar from 65-foot poles at the top of a long flight of steps lead­ing to the wa­ter. (He’s dubbed the pair, which cost $700,000 apiece, Martha and Ge­orge, for the Amer­i­can bald ea­gles that once nested on Na­tional Har­bor prop­erty.)

Sculp­tor Stu­art Pa­ley shows him the mock-up of the bea­con to be erected amidst a stand of birch trees at the Na­tional Har­bor en­trance. It’s a mod­ern sculp­ture shaped vaguely like a torch flame, with ten­drils of in­ter­twined steel reach­ing to­ward the sky. It is in­tended to evoke pa­tri­o­tism, free­dom, en­ergy, light and creative po­ten­tial.

Peter­son folds his arms, puts one hand on his chin and cocks his head. He asks Pa­ley what col­ors it will be. Yel­low and red, Pa­ley an­swers, blend­ing into orange and rust be­low. Peter­son says, “It’s great, it’s go­ing to be great,” then he pauses.

“I have a 35 per­cent feel­ing that I’m look­ing at the back. The other side looks more front-y, this looks more back-y,” Peter­son says.

“This is a ges­tu­ral piece,” Pa­ley ex­plains. “Like with the Statue of Lib­erty, there’s a front and a back.”

“Is this the back?” Peter­son asks, peer­ing around the model. “If peo­ple look at it and they don’t get it, they feel stupid,” he mut­ters.

Pa­ley agrees to add some swoop­ing strands of steel to make the back of the sculp­ture look less like a rear view.

‘Stay With What You Know’

Na­tional Har­bor is the big­gest gam­ble Peter­son has taken, but it is hardly the first. When he was 14, his fa­ther bought a mango crop and drove the fam­ily to Florida to live there while the fruit ripened. At har­vest time, young Milt — not even old enough for a driver’s li­cense — would pick up day la­bor­ers in his fa­ther’s beat-up sta­tion wagon and drive them to the or­chard.

Six­teen years ago, he bought a shrimp farm in Belize at the sug­ges­tion of an en­thu­si­as­tic friend, ul­ti­mately pro­duc­ing 14.8 mil­lion pounds of shrimp each year. But he ended up dump­ing it at a loss two years ago as shrimp prices plum­meted un­der pres­sure from the cheap, abun­dant South­east Asian seafood mar­ket.

“The big-pic­ture mes­sage from that was like Robert Frost said, the wood­cut­ter cuts wood. Stay with what you know,” Peter­son says. “But some­times that can be bor­ing. You need to try dif­fer­ent things.”

At the end of the day, he has been known to take a front-end loader for a spin around the Na­tional Har­bor con­struc­tion site to check on things, maybe move a lit­tle dirt. At least twice, he has driven his SUV into the Po­tomac, en­grossed in watch­ing the gi­ant earth-movers, con­crete mix­ers and pile driv­ers build­ing his project.

“There are peo­ple who suf­fer through mak­ing wid­gets all day and they never find hap­pi­ness,” Peter­son says. “Real es­tate is the great­est thing in the world be­cause you’re build­ing some­thing that’s go­ing to stay.”

He pauses a mo­ment. “I just don’t want to screw it up,” he says, “be­cause I’m go­ing to have to look at it for the rest of the time I’m here.” Staff re­searcher Madonna Le­bling con­trib­uted to this re­port.


De­vel­oper Milt Peter­son bought “The Awak­en­ing” sculp­ture at Hains Point in the Dis­trict and plans to trans­fer it to Na­tional Har­bor for his project there.


Above, chil­dren scale the knee of “The Awak­en­ing” sculp­ture at Hains Point. Milt Peter­son, be­low, bought the piece for about $750,000.


Artist’s ren­di­tion of Na­tional Har­bor

Milt Peter­son, above left, and sculp­tor Stu­art Pa­ley in­spect a mock-up of an 85-foot steel sculp­ture for the en­trance to the Na­tional Har­bor. Stone­henge-like boul­ders, such as those shown above at right, will al­ter­nate with the sculp­tures, lin­ing the prom­e­nade lead­ing down to the wa­ter.


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