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Developer’s Plan for Historic McMillan Park Site Vigorously Questioned During Hearings; Serious Community Issues Said Unaddressed

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2014 issue PDF

By Erin Lynn Fairbanks*

“McMillanPark has always been a desirable development target, even during the worst of economic times,” said Tony Norman, former Chairman of ANC 1B (the ANC that includes the majority of McMillan Park Reservoir Historic District), founder and chairman of the McMillan Park Committee, and a founding member of Friends of McMillan Park (FOM). Mr. Norman, who has successfully intervened in previous controversial development bids in the DC courts, is now, again, engaged with an even larger group of community members in fighting the most recent development proposal submitted by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), now before the DC Zoning Commission.

[Editor’s Note: An excellent video created by videographer Snorre Wik clearly reveals why it is that there is so much worry about the plan to turn over much of this beautiful and historic site for real estate development.]

“We want development,” emphasized Mr. Norman “we want development that is consistent with this historic site . . . we want to get to the promised land and be able to sing Kumbaya, but we aren’t there yet.” From Norman’s perspective, the 25-acre portion of McMillanPark owned by the DC taxpayers should truly benefit the public: This Land is Your Land.

In contrast to Norman’s view, Commissioner Dianne Barnes of ANC 5E (the ANC in which the endangered portion of McMillanPark is located) told the Zoning Commission, “This is the farthest we’ve ever got.” She added that she and others have spent 30 years trying to make McMillan into something that community members could benefit from and that she feels good to be at this point in the process.

However, Barnes appears to be mistaken if she thinks that McMillanPark would remain a public asset under the VMP plan. Based on the testimony provided by VMP during the first of a series of four zoning hearings held May 1st, the biggest takeaway for many residents in attendance and on Twitter was that the proposed development would be more like a private country club than public space. In short, with the VMP plan, according to community sentiment, “this land is not your land.”

VMP has requested that McMillanPark, an un-zoned former federal property, be zoned for 2.1 million square feet of commercial development — half for high-rise medical office towers and the remainder for condos, townhouses, rental apartments, retail space, and a small recreation center.

The Zoning Commission had originally scheduled three hearings on the proposal and added a fourth when faced with a packed hearing room, numerous community members signed up to testify, and the sheer quantity of details to review. Many supporters and opponents of the project attended, with opponents out-numbering supporters both in terms of bodies in the room and letters of opposition on the written record.

[Editor’s Note: This fourth and final hearing will be held in Room 220S of the Judiciary Square Building (441 4th St., NW) on Tuesday evening, May 12th, starting at 6:30 pm. For information about that hearing and related follow-up, visit www.friendsofmcmillan.org.]

The strongest and most audible reactions to the proceedings in the room and on Twitter during the first hearing focused on four different points: VMP’s confusion related to “impervious surfaces”; traffic congestion and the private nature of the roads meant to alleviate traffic woes; the “disturbing” appearance of the medical office buildings proposed for the north end of the site; and the scant, so-called “affordable housing” offered by VMP.

Impervious Surfaces

The Bloomingdale and LeDroitPark communities located directly downstream from McMillanPark have for years suffered from tremendous flooding as ever-intensifying rain storms continue to overwhelm the area’s inadequate combined sewer system.

Part of DC Water’s response to the flooding was to cleverly repurpose one of McMillanPark’s underground caverns for stormwater storage, their “medium term” component of a three-part plan for Bloomingdale. Capturing stormwater in the repurposed cavern, or “cell” as it is being called, would allow engineers to release that water over time following major rainfall events and avoid overloading the sewers during peaks.

The McMillanPark stormwater storage project was recently put to the test after a spate of heavy rain storms that lasted for several days in April of this year. Residents feared the worst, sharing images and updates from Bloomingdale in real time via social media. But disaster, thankfully, never came. As DC experienced its heaviest total April rainfall ever, the DC Water’s general manager wrote, triumphantly, on the agency’s website in a post titled “Innovation in Action” about the critical role that the re-used McMillan cell was playing in mitigating flooding. He wrote, “And in Bloomingdale, our solutions are working! . . . water flowed for the first time into the tank at McMillan. An innovative idea won out over dozens of others, we figured out how to repurpose the old sand filter, we got it done on time, and it is working! Wow.”

Given fears of repeating the 2012 stormwater disasters, it is understandable that reactions during the McMillanPark zoning hearing on May 1st were swift and sharp when VMP claimed that its proposal, with its significant portion of paved impervious surface, would absorb more runoff than the park’s existing 20-acre green roof. VMP admitted that the level of development in its proposal requires the destruction of all but one of the underground cells. In light of the success of capturing five feet of storm water run-off during the recent storms, this statement alarmed many in the room and on social media.

Traffic Mitigation

One of the most consistent community concerns with the VMP plan is the lack of a clear and viable strategy to mitigate the sharp increase in vehicular traffic that the project would generate. Concerned residents worry that there are few suitable alternative north/south thoroughfares beyond North Capitol and First Streets. NW. And, as neighborhood residents well know, if an accident occurs on Michigan Avenue or any one of the two aforementioned streets, the whole area becomes gridlocked.

An estimated upsurge of an additional 6,000 trips could cripple the transportation infrastructure around McMillan, already identified as operating above capacity and receiving a failing grade from the city’s transportation department (DDOT). Not figuring into VMP’s plan is mitigation of vehicles traveling through the area from the NOMA (North of Massachusetts Avenue) area to the south, the recently opened Monroe Street Market to the east, the soon-to-be-developed six million square feet on 77 acres of the Armed Forces Retirement Home a block to the north, and the ever growing Washington Hospital Center just across the street. All told that 6,000 vehicle figure (which is likely optimistic to begin with) is realistically more like three times as many vehicles traveling through these neighborhoods than the VMP plan contemplates.

Nevertheless, the developer’s 2013 traffic study claims that the VMP plan will have no negative impact on local traffic conditions if recommendations are followed.

That claim, however, is based on recommendations that consist of what many see as inadequate solutions and no future plans to construct a Metro line or even serious consideration of streetcars. Those recommendations include adding three new traffic signals around McMillanPark and a transport hub system on Michigan Avenue and set within the so-called HealingGarden, offering bus, car, and bike share options. But as anyone who has been stuck in traffic knows, buses and car-shares also get stuck in gridlock. Further, a bicycle expert has asserted that the VMP traffic plan, while adding many bike share options, would actually make biking and walking around the McMillan site less safe than it is now.

But what incensed neighborhood residents even more than the tepid range of traffic mitigation measures — not one of which it was asserted would protect the residential neighborhoods bordering McMillan — was VMP’s proposal, backed by the District government, to construct two, east-west roads to bisect McMillan Park and one north-south street within the site. During both the first and second zoning hearings, many community members learned for the first time that these would be privately owned, managed, and monitored, with private parking, serving the needs of future private residents.

A “Monstrosity” Amongst Gracious Homes

Part of VMP’s presentation to the Zoning Commission involved a slideshow-style, five-minute 3D video that cost $34,000 in taxpayer funds, according to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The video  revealed a huge, and in the view of many, ugly and tasteless building meant to house medical offices  “plopped” onto the northern edge of McMillanPark. Reactions to the renderings on Twitter were beyond harsh: “Looks like a first year architectural student has been playing with a computer drawing program”; “Makes me want to cry”; “VMP’s renderings for McMillan redevelopment kinda look like Naboo storyboards from [Star Wars] Ep 1. And we all know how that turned out.”

The primary objection stated regarding the mass and design of the proposed medical building (and the others to a lesser degree) is that it neither mirrors the beauty of, nor blend in with, the grace of the surrounding Victorian and early 20th century Wardman-designed homes; that building in no way reflects the gentle curves of the grassy terrain designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. or the rustic beauty of the Tuscan doors leading to the park’s subterranean caverns.

“Not-So-Affordable Housing”

The scant affordable housing offering included in the VMP proposal would provide subsidies to people making up to $80,000 per year, or 80 percent of area median income (AMI), which fails to address the actual need of struggling families. These subsidies would help a group that certainly is not the highest priority for housing assistance in the District and who arguably might not need subsidized housing at all. The working homeless or working poor do not earn anywhere near $80,000 per year. Commissioner Hood, near the end of the hearing, specifically stated that to be truly affordable and to support the working homeless, he would like to see subsidies target those earning 30 percent of AMI. During its testimony, even the Coalition for Smarter Growth was critical of VMP’s affordable housing plan, suggesting that if they removed one of the two planned garage spaces per housing unit, VMP could increase the affordability for truly lower income residents. VMP’s plan will end up making the city-owned McMillan site a place for the few.

During the hearing, the theme of “community input” was a recurring one. Representatives for VMP, Jair Lynch, and Aakash Thakkar of EYA all made sure to point out their “community outreach.” But it appears that all of the community’s constructive comments and protests about potential traffic problems, the fear of future flooding that would result from overdevelopment, and the desire of the majority to re-purpose the subterranean caverns for additional flooding mitigation or other re-uses, have fallen on indifferent ears.

Why, neighbors are asking, continue to ignore major supporters like Coalition for Smarter Growth by failing to integrate truly affordable housing into its plan? Why did VMP need to hire a public relations firm from Baltimore to help “neutralize opposition” to the plan, characterize FOM as having been “hijacked by non-local, special interests” and “provide continuous cover to local officials?” Why did it take a Freedom of Information Act filing by Friends of McMillan Park to learn about what appears to be a  clandestine campaign by the developers?

Back in the hearing room, Tony Norman, spoke on the “mis-match” between VMP’s development and what the community has said it wants for the site, maintaining that the planning process has been led by the developer instead of by the community. In his testimony, he compared developers to two-year-old children faced with a plate full of cookies: “You tell them that they can only have one, but they will continue eating until you take the cookies away.”

According to Friends of McMillan Park, the group will continue to fight for the future that they believe the park and the community deserves. As of press time, there wereover6,500 signatures on the petition to save the park, and 280 letters of opposition to (as compared to 83 in support of) the VMP application to re-zone the park.

Editor’s Note: For background on this controversy and information about nature and history of this historic site, see “Historic McMillan Park Site in Bloomingdale Set for Big Development; Neighbors Object to Plan, Seek to Retain and Restore Open Space,” InTowner, October 2013 issue PDF at page 1; http://tinyurl.com/nh3oa65.

*The writer, a 10-year Bloomingdale neighborhood resident, serves as a core part of the FOM communications team. Also contributing in the preparation of this report were John Salatti, Hugh Youngblood, Kirby Vining, and Ali Tharrington.

 

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