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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

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2016 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

Despite final approval last month from the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), opponents of the redevelopment of the McMillan Reservoir site, an historic landmark, have filed suit in the DC Court of Appeals in hopes of striking down the earlier designation by the DC Zoning Commission for the site to be zoned for a Planned Unit Development (PUD), a designation necessary for the controversial mixed-use development project to move forward.

“We’re hoping the lawsuit will kill it,” says Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP) board member Kirby Vining of the proposals put forward by Vision McMillan Partners. Vining says FOMP’s hopes are bolstered by the appeals court’s recent reversal of zoning changes made by the city to re-develop the Colonel Brooks Tavern site farther uptown in the Brookland neighborhood. The size of that proposed building in relation to its neighbors was at issue, as is the size of proposed medical office towers and other components of the planned McMillan site.

The city may not issue building permits while the lawsuit is pending, Vining says, which he sees as a victory in terms of simply delaying and perhaps wearing down the builders.

[Editor’s Note: Available on our website is the brief filed with the DC Court of Appeals by Friends of McMillan Park. We were not able to receive the Vision McMillan Partners brief in a manner that would allow for saving into our document archive. However, we will gladly send a copy of the document that was provided; simply email us and in the subject line insert the words “VMP brief” and we will attach and return.]

Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) is the city-approved triad of major developers — EYA, Trammell Crow, and Jair Lynch Development Partners — anxious to break ground on the McMillan project. After 25 years of opposition from neighbors, VMP has run the furthest through DC’s gauntlet of boards and commissions involved in the approval of big redevelopment projects.

Although FOMP claims to have thousands of supporters, only a handful showed up to the last HPRB hearing and two of them were from Dupont Circle. ANC-5E supports the project and directs information requests to the developers’ “Envision McMillan” website that includes all major players in the project, including the DC government.

“The ANC has approved the [McMillan Park] project totally,” says C. Dianne Barnes, corresponding secretary for ANC 5E, which covers the Bloomingdale neighborhood just east of North Capitol Street. Barnes says she cannot comment on the FOMP lawsuit. Teri Janine Quinn, who is chair of ANC5e, tells the InTowner that she did not attend the final HPRB hearing on May 26 and therefore declined to comment on the proceedings.

What’s more, Quinn said the history of ANC 5E’s position on the McMillan Reservoir redevelopment project is a matter of disagreement among commissioners, and further mentioned that it was a subject of discussion at the beginning of June, though she provided no details.

According to the developers’ website, “the project will create a large public park, community center with water recreation features, neighborhood-serving retail, housing for all income levels, and state-of-the-art healthcare facilities. It will also create thousands of permanent jobs for District residents.”

Distrust of VMP — chosen by city officials through a non-competitive bidding process — was fueled by last-minute changes to plans for an eight-acre public park, one of the key elements to the overall project. VMP told HPRB members at the project’s final hearing on May 26th that elimination of one water feature — a waterfall — as well as downsizing of a storm water holding pond, were necessary for reasons of aesthetics and safety.

But this distrust is not new and early on was fueled by suspicions of questionable dealings between city official and the developers. (See, “Residents Concerned About the Fate of the Historic McMillan Park Site Reveal Dubious Dealings Between the City and Developer,” InTowner, June 2014 issue pdf, page 1.)

“We have stayed true to the city’s approved master plan for the site,” said Sarosh Olpadwala, director of real estate in the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in his opening remarks to the HPRB. He said the changes were in line with a final review and refinement of plans that the board previously asked VMP to conduct.

The city owns the 25-acre portion of the site not related to the reservoir — that is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and is still a key water resource for DC — and VMP is acting on behalf of the city for the re-development.

But plans for more concrete and trees weren’t cutting it with the neighbors. “It’s unacceptable for the developer [VMP] to sell its plans with these key water related attractions and, once approved, remove them,” said FOMP member, Andrea Rosen. “It’s classic bait and switch.”

“It’s a good example of how the city has gone about the whole project,” Vining added.

While some HPRB members appeared skeptical and a little disappointed by the changes, they voted unanimously to approve the plans, details of which will now be handled by staff in DC’s Historic Preservation Office.

The FOMP lawsuit asserts that the city’s zoning commission was incorrect in its decisions regarding the site on the basis of building density, historic preservation requirements, demolition and subdivision of the site into distinct parcels, and special designations for the site that give the city broad authority in zoning regulation decisions. The government’s brief in response is a point by point rebuttal to all of FOMP’s assertions.

*Our new 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.

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DC Appeals Court Orders City Council to Produce Records Related to Development of McMillan Park Site

 In a decision handed down on June 9th, the DC Court of Appeals ordered the Council to open its records related to the development of this historic site already underway. The Court rejected the Council’s arguement that the records were protected from disclosure by the District’s speech or debate statute. (This lawsuit predates and is different from the one now pending which is discussed above.)

The Court’s decision means that the Council is fully subject to the District’s Freedom of Information Act. The Council had sought to avoid compliance with the Act by asserting that the speech or debate statute, the Legislature Protection Act, provided a massive exception that allowed it to withhold almost any record.

The Court’s decision arose from a lawsuit brought by Bloomingdale neighborhood resident  Kirby Vining, one of the founders of Friends of McMillan Park, who said, “The public won today . . . very specifically regarding McMillan Park. This win means that the public will finally get to review the records of how councilmembers, executive agencies, and private developers worked behind closed doors, doors the Council worked very hard to keep closed, to create a sweetheart deal to destroy a historic landmark.”

Continuing, Vining remarked that the “public also won in a bigger way that will affect the District for decades to come because this win means that anyone can now get many records that the Council would have kept in the dark. This is a step toward greater transparency.”

Concluding his remarks, Vining also thanked the Court “for ruling on behalf of the people. This decision is yet another victory in the efforts of the Friends of McMillan Park to hold the District to abide by existing rules and regulations to revitalize McMillan Park for future generations, keeping openness and transparency in this process.”

–P.L. Wolff

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.