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National Harbor Could Be Inspiration for Downtown State College

by on July 31, 2017 4:45 AM


I spent the weekend with friends and family attending a wedding in National Harbor. Located just off  I-95 in Prince George’s County, Maryland, across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., National Harbor is an incredibly fun area for living, working, dining, shopping, recreation and entertainment.   

National Harbor could be an inspiration for downtown State College.

In addition to the location on the water, the beautiful landscaping and the architectural design of what feels like a “new” area, the whole place is very visitor-friendly. With pedestrian friendly streets and walkways, the focal point of National Harbor is a large movie screen and stage that backs up to the water with a turf grass area in front of it.

When we arrived on Thursday night, there was a movie playing and people were sitting on blankets and Adirondack chairs, enjoying a lovely summer evening. On Saturday morning, there was an outdoor community yoga practice. There is a schedule of live entertainers for the outdoor stage.

Behind the screen is the famous “beach” which has a very large, multi-piece sculpture of a giant seemingly pulling himself from under the sand. Adjacent to the beach is the pier that leads out to the Capital Wheel, a 180-feet high ferris wheel that offers climate-controlled gondolas for up to 8 people and year-round access to phenomenal views of the area. There are river sightseeing cruises and a water taxi available for visiting Georgetown or Alexandria. Many of the restaurants have outside seating.

One of my favorite pieces of National Harbor, however, is American Way. This pedestrian friendly design has creative seating and gathering areas in the middle of a street lined with shops and restaurants. There are life-size statues of famous Americans like George Washington and Henry Ford, with historical quotes in marble embedded in the brick walkways. The road allows for vehicle traffic and has on-street parking but is clearly designed for pedestrians, even in the road surface material. They have theme oriented vendors and special street sales depending on the season.

American Way has a feel very similar to Allen Street in State College during Arts Festival. Over the years, the proposal to turn Allen Street into a pedestrian mall has been blocked based on concerns about access to businesses and loss of street parking. American Way effectively balances this access.

With the incredible range of diversity of visitors to the area in terms of age, nationalities, group size, etc. our National Harbor mini vacation was really fun. Seeing a large group of what seemed to be a family of Middle Eastern heritage, gathered around the statue of Abraham Lincoln for a picture, provides an example of the experience.

On Saturday morning, my husband and I grabbed some coffee and walked around while the shops and stores and our kids were just starting to awaken. There were groups walking down to the marina for the cruise tours. There were young and old yogis heading to the public class which had been moved to a tented area near the marina because of the threat of rain. There was a bachelorette party getting pictures taken, all dressed in jeans and black shirts with the exception of the bride who wore orange.  We saw older couples in pairs, out for a walk and several people walking their dogs. It was very pleasant.

It was the observations during this brief quiet time in our fun weekend that provides a turn in focus for this column.

With coffee in hand, we sat in the Adirondack chairs next to the open space in front of the screen to people watch. The space, an approximate 50-feet by 50-feet artificial turfed area had been the site for enjoying snacks and sitting on blankets, watching a movie just a few nights prior. As we sat there, the open, unstructured space almost seemed to come alive.

Families would walk by and kids would be immediately energized by the open space. They would run ahead of Mom or Dad and spin and kick and twirl. I watched one little guy do a series of cartwheels across the synthetic lawn. We watched two little boys run ahead of their fathers and immediately launch into some “Rocky”-ready boxing moves. They later shared with us that they were in town for a youth boxing tournament.   

The feature entertainment, however, came in the form of three kids with a soccer ball. The gathering crowd watched them, kick and run and score in a three-person soccer adaptation that they seemed to make up as they went along. It was amazing to watch adults who were walking help the boys as the ball went out of bounds. Even the warning from the security guard when the balled rolled into a restaurant seemed half-hearted. We cheered along with the other observers as the boys scored. We smiled as other kids joined the game – without asking or being invited – with play as the universal language of children. No video games. No cell phones. No coaches. Adults relegated to cheerleaders and observes. Just an open space and a soccer ball. What could we learn from National Harbor about making downtown State College a place to gather year-round?

Congratulations to Bryan and Chelsea on your wedding and thanks for including us in your amazing weekend. We had so much fun.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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