D.C.’s Biggest Development Project: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow?
Twenty-five years ago, the D.C. government paid $9.3 million for a 25-acre site along North Capitol Street that it hoped to develop into a mixed-use community. And for a quarter century, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has sat fenced off and vacant, a waste of valuable space that leaves most passersby wondering about the vaguely alien mounds and towers.
Back in 1987, according to deputy mayor Victor Hoskins' prepared testimony at a D.C. Council roundtable yesterday, "the intent then, as it is now, was to provide retail amenities, community resources, and most importantly jobs in an area that has been historically underserved by these features." But year after year, bickering over the development plans has maintained the status quo—that is, a state of deterioration that forced the city to shut down the old landmark to even the occasional tours that used to pass through.
But—at the risk of ignoring the lessons of history—it does appear that there's some momentum now for the latest development plans. Despite pockets of continuing local opposition, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission whose domain includes the site voted Monday to support the Master Development Plan drafted by Vision McMillan Partners, led by EYA, Jair Lynch Development Partners, and Trammell Crow Company. And at yesterday's hearing, the two D.C. councilmembers present— Kenyan McDuffie of Ward 5, where the site is located, and Michael Brown, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Housing—both strongly backed the plan. So did a number of community members who showed up despite what one termed "McMillan fatigue" in order to help end the decades of foot-dragging.
And then there were the opponents. Residents of neighboring Bloomingdale expressed their fear that the development would worsen the flooding that's repeatedly hit the area this year. Others worried that the nine acres of open space were inadequate, given the results of an local survey showing that the overwhelming majority of neighbors wanted at least half of the site to remain green. Some complained about the increase in traffic that might result. One local, Kirby Vining, likened the administration's hunger for development to "prostitution."
It's hard to please everyone. Just take a look at the “nine core goals” for the site, according to Hoskins:
1. Meaningful PRESERVATION that captures the history and beauty of McMillan
2. Large, inviting OPEN SPACES throughout the site
3. GROCERY and local, neighborhood serving RETAIL
4. Economic diversification and JOB CREATION
5. Expansion of HEALTHCARE options to serve our residents
6. Mix of HOUSING types and AFFORDABILITY levels
7. HIGHEST QUALITY planning, architecture, and park design
8. BALANCE community needs with District resources
9. Concurrence with the District’s COMPREHENSIVE PLAN
You’d expect a grab-bag of aims like this to produce a scheme roughly resembling this or this. Instead, the planners appear to have created a design with reasonable coherence and non-negligible neighborhood support, the inevitably NIMBY outcry notwithstanding.
Of course, there's still plenty of tinkering to do. But let's hope that the opponents of the current design work constructively to incorporate their ideas rather than stall the whole project for another 10 or 20 years. Brown hammered this point home in a forceful jab at the naysayers.
"I am extremely serious about getting past the rhetoric, the half-truths and frankly some of the deliberate false information that some chose to put out instead of having honest discussion," Brown said. "What that does is takes away from discussing the two real issues that must be dealt with if this project is to be an unqualified success of well-planned and well-executed community development. Those issues are storm and waste water management and traffic."
And maybe some additional park space. (Though parks are that much more useful if there are people around to use them—and it's hard to argue with a grocery store in an area that's lacking easy access to one.) But these are, given the magnitude of the project, not much more than details, and there ought to be a compromise that'll allow development to begin in our lifetimes.
After all, something, anything, is better than the wasteland we've got now.
Photo by David Monack (Wikimedia Commons). Drawing courtesy of Vision McMillan Partners.