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Sleazy Dealings Between the City and Developers Exposed

The revelations that surfaced during an all-day oversight hearing conducted by DC City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, joined by at-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, on the performance of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development may have surprised the council members but surely were of no surprise to the Friends of McMillan Park, their allied community activists, and the hundreds of residents of the Bloomingdale neighborhood where this historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places is located just off North Capitol Street from Channing Street north to Michigan Avenue.

Nor were the revelations a surprise to us since we have published several in-depth articles and commentaries over the past two plus years reporting on how the city and its development team have run roughshod over the legitimate “stakeholders” who have consistently raised serious, yet constructive criticisms about this massive development plan. (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, page 1;

So, what was revealed? Simply stated, public funds were paid to a public relations firm to discredit DC citizens who were opposing the planned development. Specifically, it was the actions by Baltimore-based Fontaine & Company, retained by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), contracted by the mayor’s planning and economic development office to develop the 25-acre McMillan Park and Sand Filtration Plant site. And what were those actions being called for?

As stated in Fontaine’s “VMP Grassroots Plan” which they did not want the public to see but were foiled by DC’s Freedom of Information Act, stated strategies included such tactics, among others, as neutralizing and discrediting the opposition by claiming that the Friends of McMillan group “has been hijacked by non-local, special interests and is spreading misinformation” (that’s the pot calling the kettle black!), that “the site was never a park,” and to [p]rovide continuous political cover to local elected officials” – how’s that for a gross misappropriation of taxpayer dollars! Why hasn’t anyone yet been prosecuted?

Jerome Peloquin, a Bloomingdale resident for nearly 12 years, writing in a commentary published by us in the September 2014 issue Community Forum, titled “A Profile in Corruption,” stated best why this was (and maybe still is) so disgraceful – and, in our view, ought to disqualify these developers from continued involvement:

“Fearing that the politically aware and active community would once more rise up in opposition to the overreaching plans of the developers, the city, acting through DMPED and in collusion with the developers — against the will of the community — conspired to defeat and deflect the expected community resistance to their plans. Working to build a community consensus is a legitimate activity. However, providing “cover for local politicians,” and maligning opposing community groups, as described in their plan, is not. Their strategic plan calls for them to “discredit the opposition,” and position legitimate community opposition as, “outside agitators.” This, paid for by our tax dollars!”

And, as he correctly pointed out at the time (which was during the previous mayoral administration), “The city agency charged with this task [was] the Office of Economic Development headed by the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development (DMPED). The relationship between that office and the developer [was] illustrative of a blatant lack of concern for propriety or any semblance of fairness or ethical practice. The person selected to head the real estate office within DMPED [was] a former vice president of Trammel Crow, the lead developer of the construction cabal, known collectively as VMP.”

Further, as he correctly surmised, “The avowed purpose of this collusive strategy [was], as they stated, to “neutralize community opposition by characterizing the members of any opposition group as outsiders and interlopers and to provide ‘continuous political cover,’ for local politicians who support them.”

While we are pleased that Chairman Mendelson and Councilmember Silverman have held this hearing and elicited the damning testimony, we only wish they had signaled greater outrage than what was reflected by Mendelson’s bland observation that what was revealed was “a bit of a PR disaster” and that documents contain stuff that is “embarrassing the community.” Embarrassing? Outraging is more like it and it would have been best if the chairman had reflected this outrage. As for Councilmember Silverman, despite her reputation as something of a “junkyard dog” – and we need at least one on the council — who succeeds in ferreting out bad things, she could have done better than by casually mentioning that “there are some very questionable things in these materials.” That is surely the understatement of the year so far. We hope the committee and the council take a more aggressive stance to putting a stop to this kind of cronyism and misuse of public funds. Heads need to roll; clean house now!