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McMillan Park Redevelopment Sinks Further into the Muck

By William G. Schulz*

Accompanying images can be viewed in the April 2017 issue pdf

A series of early April filings with the DC Zoning Commission  raises the smell of corruption and levels of bureaucratic muck now surrounding — perhaps engulfing — the city’s highly controversial plans to redevelop McMillan Park Reservoir, an historic site which spans the Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park neighborhoods just to the west of North Capitol Street and the seven-square block Stronghold neighborhood across North capitol in Northeast.

Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP) — the neighborhood organization long opposed to redevelopment of the site as planned by developers Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) — has produced more documentary evidence of credible allegations of malfeasance and bribery that the city has long kept buried.

The filings with the Zoning Commission are part of so-called “remand hearings” now being held in response to a DC Court of Appeals decision issued Dec. 28, 2016, that brought VMP’s project to a screeching halt. As reported by The InTowner, in a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel the court vacated the commission’s remapping and Planned Unit Development (PUD) decisions that were a greenlight for subdividing and redeveloping the 25-acre McMillan site. In fact, Mayor Muriel Bowser held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site just one day before release of the court’s decision which effectively shut the project down once again.

One of the newly released documents, a June, 2011 letter to former Mayor Vincent Gray, from an anonymous ANC 5C commissioner, stated that the commissioners were “being bombarded and even bullied to take a vote on the McMillan development plan by MVP, particularly EYA [one of the developer partners that also includes Trammel Crow and Jared Lynch]. We have been offered gifts of money, meals and ball game tickets, etc. They have approached us with offers to help us in ‘anything. . . . This is corruption and it comes at a time when the city is already under scrutiny. . . .”

The letter writer further stated, “I understand that McMillan has been a long time in the making, but it is not fair that we are being pushed to the point of being bullied to hurry up and vote of [sic] this.”

Another letter uncovered through the FOIA process and filed by FOMP with the Zoning Commission strongly rebuts VMP and the city’s conclusion that VMP’s high-density development of the site is the only plan that can work:

“The demolition of 90% of the underground vaults, paired with new construction of buildings reaching up to 115 feet high, is not necessary,” Paul Millstein, a vice president of local developer, Douglas Development Corporation, wrote to city officials in October 2014. “Proceeding with such a design would be destructive to the fabric of the land without just cause. The cost-reward implications to the community and to the District does not justify such a high-density development.”

The DC Mayor’s office and City Council have been repeatedly criticized for choosing VMP through a questionable, no-bid contract, and for also refusing to hear credible alternatives to VMP’s radical redevelopment plan.

Kirby Vining of FOMP and the McMillan Park Advisory Group says he has information that the Mayor’s office may be conducting an investigation of the criminal allegations made by the anonymous ANC commissioner to former Mayor Gray.

The McMillan project remains on an indefinite hold as the Zoning Commission tries to make its way through the list of remands from the Court of Appeals. Jason Klein, one of the attorneys who argued the case for FOMP and affiliated opposition parties, suggests that is a tall order.

“What the [court] said was not that what the Zoning Commission did was not allowed, but the way they went about it is illegal,” Klein told a University of the District of Columbia Law School-hosted forum in late March. The Zoning Commission picked the policies that supported their plan and ignored the rest, Klein said. “The court said to the Commission, ‘you can’t just do whatever you want and give some willy-nilly justification after the fact.’”

Klein is skeptical that VMP’s project will restart anytime soon. On its remand, the court made clear that a repeat of arguments in favor of the project won’t cut it. Justifications for remapping and rezoning the McMillan site must be based on additional and sufficient evidence to sway the court. What’s more, Klein said, any appeal of the DCCA ruling would have to go to the U.S. Supreme Court where it is unlikely to make it on to the high court’s docket.

[Editor’s note: Klein’s forum talk, followed by questions and answers can be viewed starting at 55:13.]

FOMP’s Vining says he thinks the city, at this point, is holding public hearings to save face while city officials figu re out what to do next. The scheduled hearings are now stretching into late April and early May.

Klein didn’t elaborate at the UDC Law School forum, but another critical portion of the court’s ruling held that a designation by the so-called Mayor’s Agent giving the McMillan site “special merit” status to allow higher density and height development as well as destruction of otherwise protected historic structures on the site, was not valid. Such special merit designations, the court ruled, must be justified with extensive documentation that the city ignored almost entirely. The VMP plan, for example, would mostly destroy the remnants of a 19th century engineering marvel — the old sand filtration units and underground caverns once used to purify the city’s drinking water that in part gives the site its historic landmark status.

As a key to unlock all of the VMP project, the lack of a special merit designation forces VMP and the city into a complete do-over.

And now the documents made public by FOMP’s efforts would seem to further undermine the city and the developer’s increasingly shaky arguments, justifications, and legal contortions to allow them to subdivide the site, erect high-density office buildings, new housing and retail space while leaving the city with but a shadow of the original parkland for public use.

Still, it has begun to seem that nothing VMP and city officials do in relation to McMillan Park is too outrageous or scandalous to discredit the project or quell their determination to move forward. While city officials and VMP long ago stopped speaking to the media about the project, they have announced no plans to give up on or significantly recalibrate the project.

Years of reporting on the McMillan Park Reservoir redevelopment by The InTowner reveals the widespread and strenuous objections of city residents about the lengths officials are willing to go to see VMP’s plan happen:

Using taxpayer dollars to hire a PR firm to discredit VMP’s opponents; flouting open-hearing and competitive bidding laws to keep VMP — with little or no justification — as the development team; ignoring land use covenants that conveyed when the parkland was purchased by the city from the federal government some 30 years ago; and, perhaps worst of all, for all of those 30 years keeping the beauty and sweeping vistas of the McMillan Park Reservoir site off-limits to the public, and behind a strong, chain-link fence.

* 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 © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.