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The McMillan Park Reservoir Mess: City officials Seem to be Ignoring the Increased Opposition to the Plans for Historic Site’s Development, Perhaps at Their Peril; Walking Tour to be Led by Neighborhood Historian Paul Cerruti Will Shed Light

Accompanying images can be viewed in the October 2016 issue pdf

 By William G. Schulz*

The Mayor’s office isn’t returning phone calls, City Council has been forced by the courts to release documents on a no-bid contract it has claimed are “privileged,” an Advisory Neighborhood Commission has been pulled apart by warring factions, and neighbors all around the city’s historic McMillan Reservoir Park between First and North Capitol Streets in Northwest DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood are hopping mad. As they see it, the city is blithely giving away one of its largest and last remaining, green open spaces.

Further. the DC Court of Appeals, having heard oral arguments from a case handed up from DC Superior Court, is expected early next year to render a decision regarding the legality of zoning decisions for the McMillan Park area made by the DC Zoning Commission and another entity of special powers at City Hall, known as the “Mayor’s Agent.”

[Ed. note: See “Turmoil Continues Over McMillan Park Site Development; Friends Group Contests Validity of Zoning Commission’s Green Light for PUD, Files Appeal with DC Appeals Court,” InTowner, June 2016 issue pdf, page 1; also, “DC Appeals Court Orders City Council to Produce Records Related to Development of McMillan Park Site,” our follow-up report three days later.

It is a tangled knot, to be sure, but it has become almost a straw man for every side in the struggles over urban redevelopment in Washington and elsewhere. And it’s also why this gentrification quicksand could swallow Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of City Council if they don’t get it right, starting with paying better attention to the neighborhoods most affected by the McMillan controversy.

Along with various zoning commissioners, ANC commissioners, and historic preservation activists who are playing starring roles in this high-stakes saga of real estate and realities in the city’s amped-up engines of redevelopment, residents are becoming so riled up that it may come to pass that the Mayor and some City Council members may regret the deaf ear they are turning to  committed citizen activists who are opposed to the current plans for McMillan, and whose movement appears to be gaining steam.

On Oct. 9, for example, the group, Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP), headed up by neighborhood activist Kirby Vining, organized a well- attended walking tour/ fundraiser led and narrated by volunteer historian, Paul Cerruti. His thorough documentation and study demonstrated convincingly that McMillan Park has, since the late 19th century, been an essential element of the surrounding neighborhoods and their desirability as places to live.

Being shown to the group by Cerruti as examples of the established consensus that McMillan Park had been, and continued to be, known truly a park, were early 20th century advertisements promoting the area as an especially attractive place in which to live, including one showing nine row houses for sale that were directly across the street from a “Beautiful Government Park.” Other state advertisements from throughout the years that touted the park as a valuable amenity for potential homebuyers that he showed are, he and others contend are strong evidence that the McMillan site has long been regarded as parkland, a designation city officials insist is not true and invoke often in pushing for major redevelopment.

This contention clearly was put into play as part of the developer’s strategy. Based on a Vision McMillan internal company document obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) action by opponents who provided The InTowner with that document’s “talking points,” one that especially stands out appears under the “misinformation to further its agenda” header in the “Talking Points” section: “The site was never a park.”

The most recent example of the city’s apparent strategy to ignore away the problems with McMillan and its neighbors begin at the top. After the DC Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from both sides of the lawsuit to reverse city zoning decisions and stop the McMillan project, the city did not even send its own lawyers to hear the arguments for and against in court. They relied solely on the development team’s lawyers to also represent the District.

That is especially striking given that the appeals court panel will also be deciding the scope of powers by the so-called “Mayor’s Agent” in zoning commission decisions to declare areas “special merit” in order to get a ruling the Mayor’s office supports. In the McMillan case, the Mayor’s Agent decision meant an override from the Comprehensive Plan to allow a high density medical office building to be built on the northern end of the site — a particular point of opposition for many McMillan neighbors, and certainly for the Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP).

A call by The InTowner seeking to interview Mayor Bowser about the appeals court’s important review of  the Zoning Commission decision and the growing number of historic preservation groups filing amicus briefs and otherwise joining in protest of the project, was directed to her communications director who handed off our inquiry to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Joaquin McPeek, who scheduled with this reporter a specific date and time for a phone interview, but then never made himself available despite the arrangement and never returned follow-up calls seeking to reschedule that interview appointment.

In yet another twist, last Spring back when our June issue lead story on McMillan was being prepared Anne Corbet, an executive with Vision McMillan Partners, had informed The InTowner that all press inquiries must be directed to Deputy Mayor McPeek, who at that time did speak with this reporter and claimed that the entire project is above board and is what the community wants, aside from a few naysayers. He dismissed the lawsuits that have been filed against the city over the project as unimportant now that the Zoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Review Board had rendered their decisions.

Kirby Vining sees this behavior from the Mayor’s office as typical, but he has maintained his drive and commitment to stop the project.  “I have probably spent some $170,000 of my own money trying to stop this thing in court,” he says. He sees precedent to overturn a Zoning Commission decision allowing high-density development in part of the park area as particularly vulnerable.

In Vining’s view, not only does the decision fly in the face of the Comprehensive Plan’s goals for immediate for the area, but the appeals court’s  recent Brookland neighborhood decision overturning the Zoning Commission’s Colonel Brooks Tavern is instructive with regard to the McMillan case.

Opponents are convinced that the redevelopment push has been wired for the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed 25-acre McMillan Park with its historic walkway along with the intriguing remains of the 19th century engineering marvel of water purification and expanse of green lawn and cool breezes at the crossroads of some of the city’s oldest, most historic neighborhoods in favor of development consortium, Vision McMillan Partners (VMP).

While no “smoking gun” has yet emerged, the seeming cozy relationships between DC and VMP was an issue, especially when reports of a high-level official of the Deputy Mayor’s office suddenly was hired for a senior position by Trammell Crow, one of the VMP partners, or why, as noted in a lead story we published two-and-a-half years ago, did the city pay VMP “to hire a public relations firm from Baltimore to help ‘neutralize opposition’ to the plan”? (See, “Developer’s Plan for Historic McMillan Park Site Vigorously Questioned During Hearings; Serious Community Issues Said Unaddressed,” InTowner, May 2014 issue pdf, page 1.)

For his part, Vining recently received documents obtained by a FOIA request concerning the City Council’s decision-making in regards to Vision McMillan Partners and their no-bid contract with the District. He says he is still combing through them trying to understand what might be revealed.

The InTowner has received copies of the same documents from the Council’s FOIA office and will be examining them for relevant information which we will report when we next update this continuing McMillan Park story.

Many members of FOMP — including many who do not live anywhere near the Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park, and Stronghold neighborhoods — say an “unholy alliance” of city officials and deep-pocketed developers are simply itching to get shovels turning to change the park’s “greenery into greenbacks.”

“The fix has been in for a long time,” ANC commissioner Bertha Holliday tells The InTowner. Holliday is just one of many ANC commissioners in the area who has, since 2006, tried to fight or at least extract significant concessions from developers before the project could move forward. This was the year the Comprehensive Plan first saw light of day and plans for the city-owned park first got underway.

Others, such as ANC5E commissioner Debbie Steiner, say it is the commissioners themselves who have abdicated their responsibilities, thus handing a sweetheart deal to the McMillan triad of developers Jared Lynch, Trammell Crow and EYA residential builders. “Today, it’s a mess,” she says. “Something needs to be done. There could be a lot of positive changes. The ANC has begun to function like more of a citizen association where commissioners come to air personal viewpoints instead of dealing with the ‘nitty gritty’ of government process.” She says infighting between ANC commissioners has meant that the opportunity to develop a strong and binding community benefits agreement — an essential element for Zoning Commission approvals — became a missed opportunity.

*Associate Editor William G. Schulz, a resident of Dupont Circle since the 1980s, has been a journalist specializing in science and investigative reporting for over 30 years.

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.