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Controversial Development Projects Continue in the News; Too Close to Resolution, but McMillan Far from Resolved

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the July 2017 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz*

As Washingtonians head into the dog days of late July and August, three high-profile real-estate development projects — all subjects of extensive coverage by the InTowner — have received either green lights from various boards and commissions, been sued by opposition groups, or remain mired in court actions that neither city officials nor the developers involved can quite seem to figure out.

In no particular order, the development projects are: PN Hoffman’s residential building at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW — a/k/a SunTrust Plaza; a proposed new residential tower at 16th and Belmont Streets, NW that will ensure an ongoing and much needed income stream for the nonprofit Meridian International Center and ensure its ongoing stewardship and preservation of its historic White-Meyer and Meridian House mansions; and, finally, the on-going McMillan Park development controversy, which has become something of an albatross for the D.C. Zoning Commission, the city’s Office of Planning, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser whose groundbreaking of the site in late December 2016, was met the next day with a Court of Appeals Ruling that brought the entire McMillan project to a screeching halt.

At a somewhat byzantine hearing on July 29, the Zoning Commission, under the direction of Chairman Anthony Hood, wound its way through the five specific remands on the McMillan project handed down by the DC Court of Appeals.

Of particular note, said Hood, were the court’s questions surrounding justification for the height and density of a proposed medical office building on the site that developers Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) insist is critical to the success of the rest of the project — including mixed-income housing units and public park space with amenities such as historical exhibits about the abandoned sand filtration units, a marvel of late 19th century engineering once critical to the city’s supply of potable water.

But McMillan neighbors and opposition groups have insisted that the proposed medical building would violate the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which designates the site for only medium or moderate density development. Groups such as Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP) — which filed in DC Superior Court the original lawsuit to stop the project — also contend that the VMP development will destroy historic site lines, does not address fully quality of life impacts such as traffic and parking, and has been marred by malfeasance and corruption, including illegally awarded contracts, suppression of public opinion via city-financed public relations campaigns, and attempts to hide highly relevant documents and expert testimony that prove other options for finally opening McMillan Park to public enjoyment do exist.

In sharing his frustration regarding McMillan Park development, Zoning Commission Vice Chair Robert Miller expressed some degree of the other commissioners’ shared frustration, perhaps cut to the chase when he stated, “This project has been approved many times in this configuration. . . . This project is supported by the elected representatives of the people.”

Green and open space has grown throughout the process, Miller said, and he insisted that the developer has designed step-downs and setbacks to increase the overall visual appeal of the project. “There has been a balancing that has already occurred,” Miller said. “This is an important mixed-use, mixed-income project that the city has been trying to develop for over 30 years.”

When the commissioners began to deliberate next steps — basically, another hearing, probably in September — Kimberly M. Johnson, a staff attorney for the city’s Office of the Attorney General, as a representative of the city in the McMillan case, stated that she wished to make a plea for Chairman Hood to find a hearing room that could be scheduled very quickly — perhaps in July.

“I mean,” she said, “this is a very important case for the District and for the citizens. And as you’ve indicated, this case has been around for a very long time. And so, we were very hopeful that we had come to the end, and to now push it off even longer. . . .”

Johnson did not respond to our voice mail message left on her office phone  seeking further comment on the matter.

The Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation will hold its own remand hearing on July 14th and the Zoning Commission has scheduled its next hearing for September 14.

Meanwhile, FOMP’s Kirby Vining tells The InTowner that the way he sees it is that “the [DC Court of Appeals] is giving the city a chance to justify certain egregious aspects of the project, and the city isn’t doing so.”

Turning our attention from McMillan Park to Meridian Hill about two miles west, Meridian International Center and its developer Westbrook Partners have finally won Historic Preservation Review Board approval of their revised design  for a new high-rise luxury apartment building to be erected on the presently unused, lower portion of the White-Meyer grounds facing 16th Street between Crescent place and Belmont Street.

The published ruling was brief: “The Board concurred with the findings and recommendations in the HPO report  that the proposal was incompatible with the character of the landmark. The Board specifically cited the height, mass and relationship to the edge of the hillside, rather than the architectural vocabulary, as incompatible. Vote: 6-0.”

As The InTowner reported in May, Meridian and Westbrook had been rebuffed four times by HPRB, but apparently the fifth try was a charm. The building will be reduced by one floor from the top but maintain a central entrance tower deemed in keeping with the Meridian Hill Historic District, and corner balconies included in the previous design iteration will be removed. This was one of several options the developers had to address the main concern about the building’s height, though it was not the preferred option of ANC 1C, which wanted a full floor taken from the building’s midsection.

Meanwhile, the Kalorama Citizens Association and pressure group Adams Morgan for Reasonable Development have filed suit to stop PN Hoffman’s retail and condominium development at the southwest corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road, which will likely result in a smaller public plaza than that maintained by SunTrust Bank for nearly 40 years.

Hoffman and partner Potomac Investment Properties insist that the plaza is now part of their private property, though they have stated a plan to include maintenance of some public space in the triangle on the northeast corner of the intersection, as well as ensuring relocation of the weekend farmers market that occurs on weekends in the current plaza. PN Hoffman did not respond to our requests for comment about the pending lawsuit. 

*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.