ANC and Developer Conspire to Exclude Community from McMillan Community Benefits Agreement

The District of Columbia Government hired a development consultant to promote a proposal to develop historic landmark McMillan Park into high-rise medical office buildings and a private housing complex. In December 2013, that company, Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), encouraged the responsible Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) to exclude the McMillan Advisory Group (MAG) from participating in preparing and negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would accompany the development proposal’s zoning application. Documents obtained as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request concerning the project revealed this disturbing information.

Tania Jackson, head of VMP subcontractor community outreach firm Create Communitas, advised ANC Dianne Barnes (SMD 5E09) on December 6, 2013 against sharing with the MAG a draft CBA prepared by VMP. The MAG is a group established by the District Government, VMP, and representatives of all local community groups affected by the McMillan Park development proposal to represent local community interests.

According to a 2007 Letter of Commitment that created the MAG and that was signed by all parties, the purpose of the Group is to work with all concerned stakeholders “to develop a detailed community amenities package” among other specific goals. Commissioner Barnes, a MAG representative by virtue of her position as the ANC for the immediate neighborhood, was also Chair of ANC 5E at the time of the December 2013 incident. Ms. Jackson instructed the ANC that the CBA would be worked out directly between VMP and the ANC 5E Commissioners only, directly and deliberately excluding the MAG from the process. Commissioner Barnes clearly implemented Ms. Jackson’s direction given the lack of MAG role in the CBA crafting.

Independently, the MAG worked diligently from December 2013 to April 2014 to prepare a proposed CBA for the project in accordance with the MAG charter, including comments provided by all member groups in the community. Throughout this time, the MAG was unaware that the ANC had no intention of including the MAG’s CBA, or even looking at it. ANC 5E then approved the CBA prepared by VMP, blindsiding the entire community represented on the MAG. The CBA produced by VMP that ANC 5E later presented to the DC Zoning Commission bears little resemblance to the MAG CBA.

Kirby Vining was represented in the law suit that produced these documents by Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases.

To review the files on which the above article is based, see documents numbered 000138, 000139, and 000147 located in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following address:

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ANC, VMP, DMPED Celebrate Mayor’s Office Refusal to Meet with Friends of McMillan Park

In August 2013, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi radio call-in show to discuss District issues in an open forum. During that radio show, a caller inquired about the Mayor’s position on the proposal to destroy historic landmark McMillan Park and replace it with high-rise medical office buildings and a large number of residential housing units. Specifically, the caller pressed the Mayor about how he could ignore the large numbers of constituents who had expressed written opposition to the controversial development proposal. The Mayor responded to the caller that he was unaware of the thousands of people who had registered strong concerns about the project.

Following the radio show, Kirby Vining and Friends of McMillan Park formally requested a meeting with the Executive Office of the Mayor to deliver copies of the petition in opposition to the development proposal with 5,200 signatures. Chris Murphy, Mayor Gray’s Chief of Staff, responded to Mr. Vining by denying the meeting request, citing Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) support for the project.

On August 7, 2013, Shiv Newaldass, then a project manager for the DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) overseeing the McMillan development proposal, received a copy of Mr. Murphy’s response to the Friends denying the requested meeting with the Mayor. Mr. Newaldass in turn thanked Mr. Murphy “… and the Mayor for taking such a firm stance in support of this project.” Newaldass then shared this correspondence with the entire Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) development team hired by DMPED to develop McMillan Park. The following day, VMP Project Director, Anne Corbett, shared the message with Tania Jackson of VMP outreach contractor, Create Communitas, and with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Dianne Barnes (SMD 5E09) and Ronnie Edwards (SMD 5C11), both of whom served as Chair of their respective ANCs at the time. Ms. Jackson noted that this was “good stuff – firm replies we really wanted from the Mayor.” Commissioner Barnes also thanked Ms. Corbett, noting that this was great information to share.

For the DMPED project manager to thank the Mayor’s office for this kind of support begs the question of who is actually in charge of this project. Presumably the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development is implementing the Mayor’s agenda, so why are the Deputy Mayor’s office and the Deputy Mayor’s contractors thanking the Mayor for taking a firm position on the project? Whose project is it anyway?

Shortly after receiving the denied meeting request, Mr. Vining insisted to Mr. Murphy that even if the Mayor refused meet with Friends of McMillan Park, the Friends would still deliver the petitions to the Mayor’s office. Resisting at first, Mr. Murphy finally relented after Mr. Vining invoked the petition clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, to which Mr. Murphy responded that his door was always open to receive petitions in that case, even though no meeting would be scheduled.

This article is based on documents obtained from the DC Government via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases, represented Kirby Vining in the lawsuit that produced these documents.

The source material on which the above article is based is document number 001150 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following location:

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VMP Gathers ANCs and Coalition for Smarter Growth for HPRB Hearing

In June 2013, a consortium known as Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) was preparing for a hearing before the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) on a proposed master plan to commercially develop historic landmark McMillan Park into residential housing and a large medical office building complex. Tania Jackson, head of Create Communitas, an outreach firm retained by VMP, contacted the following persons about a change in the HPRB’s hearing schedule for the McMillan project review:

  • Cheryl Cort, Policy Director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth
  • Commissioner Dianne Barnes, Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E
  • Commissioner Ronnie Edwards, Chair of ANC 5C

Ms. Jackson informed Ms. Cort, Commissioner Barnes, and Commissioner Edwards by email, “We are starting at 2:45 rather than 3:00PM,” referring to the newly announced starting time of the HPRB hearing on the same date, June 26th. This information was revealed recently as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents concerning the District Government’s handling of the McMillan Park project.

No members of the paid VMP team were included in this email correspondence, just officers of two ANCs and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. This email would seem to identify the recipients as part of the project’s outreach team, paid or not, although one might otherwise presume that these individuals testified on their own behalves rather than as part of the development project’s coordinated outreach team.

According to an earlier FOIA request for documents concerning the McMillan Park project, on June 20, 2013, Ms. Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth notified Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s staff that Friends of McMillan Park had planned a silent protest to take place during McDuffie’s “State of Ward 5” speech on June 25th. A member of McDuffie’s staff thanked Ms. Cort via email for the information and indicated that they had yet to hear this information elsewhere. Ms. Cort apparently obtained the information from Alex Posorske, Managing Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. McMillan Park is located in Ward 5 of the District of Columbia.

Kirby Vining was represented in the suit that produced one of the documents referred to above by Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases.

The article above is based on document 002823 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder and on pages 205 and 206 of the document “FOIA_mcduffie_finalbatch_2_10jan14.pdf” available in the “McDuffie FOIA Documents” folder at the following location:

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ANC Commissioner Sought $8 Million More for McMillan Project without Consent of Full ANC

Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that Commissioner Dianne Barnes, then Chair of DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E, asked the District Government to give $8 million more to Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), a consortium seeking to commercially develop historic landmark McMillan Park, for construction of an apartment building intended for senior citizens. Commissioner Barnes made the request on behalf of ANC 5E although there is no record that the full ANC voted to make or approve such a request. ANC Chairs have no power to pretend to speak on behalf of a full ANC without specific authority to do so approved by a majority vote of a given Commission.

The District Government, at least as far as is known to the public, has yet to provide the additional funds requested.  VMP has set aside some of the housing included in its development proposal specifically for senior citizens.

On September 26, 2013, Commissioner Barnes sent an email to Marchim Williams, Ward 5 Liaison in the DC Mayor’s Office of Community Affairs, requesting that the District Government give an additional $8 million to VMP to cover overlooked costs of including a seniors-only apartment building in VMP’s plan for mixed-use development at McMillan Park. Barnes told Williams, “Regarding the request for the Senior Building, Ms. Corbett, the Project Director, informed me that they made the Senior Building fit physically, but it does not yet fit financially. VMP will need additional subsidy of about $8M to make the 80-90 unit senior building affordable to households at 50-60% of Area Median Income.”

Commissioner Barnes did not indicate why VMP did not request the additional money directly.

Commissioner Barnes also sent the email to the offices of DC Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie, Anita Bonds, Muriel Bowser, David Grosso, and Vincent Orange.

The only apparent response that Commissioner Barnes received to her request for additional funds was from Councilmember Anita Bonds who expressed her support for VMP’s project centered around a one-million square-foot medical office tower.  Councilmember Bonds asked Commissioner Barnes what she could do to help make the project a reality. On the same day, Councilmember Bonds emailed Commissioner Barnes and said, “Can we talk about how I can help make this development a reality. Many months ago I understood that the community had settle on many of the items you mentioned herein as components of the McMillan project. Has there been a change? Let me know when you are available to talk about the project.”  Although Councilmember Bonds and Commissioner Barnes agreed to meet to discuss senior housing, the content of their subsequent discussion was not revealed in this correspondence.

It remains unclear who authored the email request for an additional $8 million sent by Commissioner Barnes.  The font, grammar, tone, and vocabulary included in the email differ substantially from that of other Barnes letters reviewed as part of this FOIA request.  Records obtained through the FOIA process reveal that Commissioner Barnes maintains extraordinarily close relationships with VMP employees and with key District Government officials pushing to develop McMillan Park.  For example, the records reveal that the ANC 5E resolution of support for the McMillan project was written for Commissioner Barnes by VMP’s public relations contractor, Tania Jackson.  It is possible that the Barnes request for the additional $8 million was also ghost-written by VMP or by an associated organization.

The District Government fought the disclosure of Commissioner Barnes’ emails and other public records related to the McMillan Park project for over one-and-a-half years.  Judge Nash of DC Superior Court ordered the District Government to turn over the last records in July 2015.  Kirby Vining was represented by Don Padou in the FOIA suit to obtain the hidden records.

The article above is based on documents 005761, 009506, and 009510 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following location:

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ANC Role in “Create McMillan Park” Sign Campaign Revealed in Court-released Documents

Create McMillan Park supports Corruption

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are the lowest level elected officials in Washington, DC, the closest to the community, and are supposed to serve as the voice of local residents in zoning and other matters that affect their neighborhoods. But the ANC responsible for the district that includes historic landmark McMillan Park has presented only one side of the community position on the proposal to commercially develop the park. The story below, based on documents obtained through the courts and a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, demonstrates how the ANC in question has been in cahoots with a commercial developer’s paid outreach efforts to push the proposed project. This is the story of the ANC’s role in the mysterious “Create McMillan Park” yard sign campaign.

In December 2013, the Stronghold and Bloomingdale communities began to see “Create McMillan Park” signs appearing in yards of the neighborhoods where only the Friends of McMillan Park’s “Save McMillan Park” signs had been displayed previously. The new signs, and an organization calling itself “Neighbors for McMillan”, were later discovered to be part of a “Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) Grassroots Plan” designed by Fontaine & Company, a Baltimore-based public relations firm dispatched to “shift community dialogue and general perception to that of majority local support for the VMP plans” and to “neutralize and discredit the opposition (to the VMP plans)” according to the published goals of Fontaine’s program. Fontaine & Co. was paid about $28,000 by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to conduct this outreach campaign on behalf of the DMPED-VMP plan to massively develop McMillan Park into medical office towers and residences. Tania Jackson’s Create Communitas was another local outreach firm employed by DMPED for this purpose and was paid about $90,000. A third firm, Chesapeake Public Strategies of Rockville, Maryland, was paid over $100,000 by DMPED for its role in the VMP outreach plan. Fees paid by DMPED to these three firms were revealed in an earlier FOIA request.

The role that Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Dianne Barnes (Single Member District 5E09) played with the development team’s PR firms and the “Create McMillan Park/Neighbors for McMillan” campaign was revealed in documents requested by Kirby Vining with the Friends of McMillan Park under another FOIA request filed in November 2013. The resultant documents were finally divulged after a year and a half of court battles. According to the official description of the role of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, “the intent of the ANC legislation is to ensure input from an advisory board that is made up of residents of neighborhoods directly affected by government actions”. But in this case, as shown below, input from only one side of this issue was considered.

Commissioner Barnes Meets Fontaine & Company

On October 27, 2013, Commissioner Barnes advised a constituent interested in the VMP McMillan development proposal to contact Jamie Fontaine, principal officer of Fontaine & Co., to learn about an open house presentation of the VMP plans scheduled to be held in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. Ironically, the constituent had actually inquired with Barnes about how to register strong criticism of rather than support for the plan, arguing that housing and commercial development are inappropriate for the McMillan Park site. Clearly, Commissioner Barnes had already been in contact with Fontaine & Co. on that date. On October 29th, Mary Urban of Fontaine & Co. contacted Commissioner Barnes to inform her that Urban worked with Tania Jackson and Envision McMillan (VMP’s name for its project team) and reminded Commissioner Barnes that they had spoken together the previous day. Later, on November 1st, Ms. Urban thanked Commissioner Barnes for her pro-VMP testimony at the October 31st Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) hearing on the VMP proposed master plan and informed Commissioner Barnes that Fontaine & Co. was planning an open house to present the VMP plans to the Bloomingdale community on November 16th.

“Neighbors for McMillan” Kicks Off

On December 10th, Byron Johnson of Fontaine & Co. informed Commissioner Barnes of the first meeting of the “Neighbors for McMillan” (NFM) group scheduled for a home in Bloomingdale on the evening of December 18th. Shortly after the December 18th meeting, Johnson thanked Commissioner Barnes for attending.

“Create McMillan Park” Sign Launch

On December 26th, Jamie Fontaine provided Commissioner Barnes with information concerning several press items containing favorable mention of the VMP development proposal and provided the Fontaine-produced ‘infographic, fact sheet, and toolkit link’ located on the “Envision McMillan” web page. Fontaine suggested that “Neighbors for McMillan” members post comments on the Bloomingdale Blog article concerning the Create McMillan Park signs, and post on Facebook the Washington City Paper article mocking the “Save McMillan Park” signs. Based on this communication, apparently from Fontaine to Commissioner Barnes alone, Barnes was both a member of Neighbors for McMillan and also played a leadership role in the group, serving as local point of contact for Baltimore-based Fontaine & Co. in these outreach efforts.

Commissioner Barnes Helps Get the Signs Out

On December 19th, Jamie Fontaine and Byron Johnson coordinated with Commissioner Barnes to dole out “Create McMillan Park” signs to residents in Barnes’ area. Commissioner Barnes offered to distribute signs and asked for more flyers to circulate in the neighborhood. Barnes also indicated that she would try to get neighbors to host house parties for the Neighbors for McMillan group meetings. On December 29th, Commissioner Barnes informed Tania Jackson that she had run out of “Create McMillan Park” yard signs and needed about 20 more, and passed along a list of names and addresses mostly in the Bloomingdale area of where she planned to try to place those additional signs. Ms. Jackson promised to drop off the additional signs on December 31st, apparently in coordination with Byron Johnson who thanked Commissioner Barnes for the list of proposed sign locations. Mr. Johnson noted that Commissioner Barnes had expressed interest in hosting a Neighbors for McMillan meeting at her home during the second week in January 2014 and offered to organize the meeting and send out invitations for it. Mr. Johnson also asked Commissioner Barnes to arrange a meeting at All Nations Baptist Church in the neighborhood to try to interest local businesses in the VMP McMillan proposal.

Chesapeake Public Strategies Helps Out

Chesapeake Public Strategies coordinated some of the outreach campaign for VMP, as revealed in several testimony letters sent to the HPRB in October 2013 in support of the VMP proposed master plan. On October 30th, Barnes submitted her own testimony letter to the HPRB supporting VMP for the October 31st hearing and provided copies of that testimony to two officers of Chesapeake Public Strategies, Ellen Bogage (CEO) and Dana Davidson (another officer).

Ronnie Edwards, Chair of ANC 5A in the district immediately north of McMillan Park (and former Chair of the ANC in which McMillan was located before redistricting), submitted his own testimony supporting the VMP plan to the HPRB on October 31st. Commissioner Edwards also provided copies of his testimony to Chesapeake’s Bogage and Davidson. Two other constituents associated with the Neighbors for McMillan also provided copies of their testimony supporting the VMP plan to Bogage and Davidson. No information was revealed about why these Chesapeake officers were provided copies of testimony written for the HPRB hearing. Commissioner Edwards of ANC 5A frequently coordinated actions in his ANC with both Commissioner Barnes (ANC 5E) and Tania Jackson as well as with VMP Project Director Anne Corbett, other VMP senior officials, and DMPED Project Manager, Shiv Newaldass.

Kirby Vining was represented in the suit that produced these documents by Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases.

The article above is based on documents 000352, 001085, 001087, 001101, 001165, 001197, 001202, 001212, 001588, 001590, 002012, 002257, 002259, 002856, 003629, 004210, 005716, 010041, 010456, 010458, and 022775 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following location:

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ANC 5E Exaggerates Level of Support for McMillan Development Project


According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E told the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) that an “overwhelming majority” of residents living in the area surrounding historic landmark McMillan Park supported a commercial developer’s plans to turn the 25 acres of contiguous open green space into a mixed-use development featuring one million square feet of medical office space and about 150 townhouses.

The claim of community support was made by Commissioner Dianne Barnes, then Chair of ANC 5E, in official testimony submitted to the HPRB and presented in person at a hearing in November 2013.  FOIA documents reveal that shortly after the hearing, Tania Jackson, then principal of Create Communitas, an outreach consultancy firm working for the development project team, asked Commissioner Barnes how many letters she had received in support of the proposed project. Commissioner Barnes, according to the documents, said that she had received eight such letters of support. Create Communitas was paid almost $90,000 by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to coordinate public outreach for the project.

A review of HPRB files indicates that the Board received written testimony from 25 individuals and organizations in support of the plan to develop the McMillan Park site. In contrast, at least 80 people and organizations registered their disapproval of the project plans with HPRB. The Board also received petitions signed by 610 people opposed to the project. ANC 5E did not explain the basis for its claim of “overwhelming” community support for the project.

The ANC’s overblown claims are another example of how the coordinated attempt to destroy McMillan Park has abused procedures intended to protect DC historic properties.

The documents on which this article is based were obtained by Kirby Vining after he brought suit under the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act. The District Government delayed complying with the Act by over a year and earned a reprimand from Judge Stuart Nash, as reported here in a previous article. Mr. Vining was represented by Don Padou, a lawyer specializing in FOIA suits.

The article above is based on documents 002775 and 010558 available in the “Barnes FOIA Documents” folder at the following location:

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Judge Reprimands District for “Troubling” Delay Tactics in McMillan Documents Request

District Superior Court Judge Stuart Nash harshly criticized the District of Columbia’s litigation tactics effectively resisting his previous order to release documents in a recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request concerning the city’s planned development of historic landmark McMillan Park. During a June 19, 2015 hearing, Judge Nash severely reprimanded lawyers representing the District Government, stating that the District unnecessarily delayed the production of documents that Judge Nash had already ordered released.

At the June 19, 2015 hearing, Judge Nash said he found it very troubling to see how the District had chosen to litigate this case, prolonging it in spite of the statutory requirement to produce documents quickly. He had already reamed the District’s attorneys at an earlier hearing, in October 2014, shortly after they filed an appeal that Judge Nash indicated must be respected. But Judge Nash suggested that his patience was tried by this tactic that he saw as “dilatory device,” part of what Judge Nash saw as a litigating strategy of delaying the case from moving forward. He noted that the District had not yet produced any documents ordered by the court and suggested that it was unlikely that the District had any justification for continuing to withhold the requested documents against his order.

Judge Nash also said that he shared Vining’s frustration, stating that “here we have his democratically elected government which is operating against him and not vindicating rights that have been provided to him by the D.C. counsel and it is not the District’s finest hour.”

On June 25, 2015, following an in-camera review of some additional materials, Judge Nash ordered the release of the last remaining requested documents in this case that began in November, 2013. Judge Nash had ordered the documents released a year before, but the District delayed the release through what Judge Nash called “a frivolous appeal” that he said amounted to an “abuse of the appellate process” to evade his order, according to the transcript of this case. Well over 10,000 pages of documents were finally produced in this case, about a year and a half after its inception. Kirby Vining was represented in this suit by Don Padou, a lawyer who specializes in FOIA cases.

The article above is based on the document “Transcript Vining v DC June 19 2015” available in the “Court Documents” folder at the following location:

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ANC 5E Took Marching Orders from Developer on McMillan Project

Marching Orders

Documents obtained by Friends of McMillan Park demonstrate that Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 5E, a local division of the District of Columbia Government in Ward 5, took orders from real estate developers that aspire to turn historic landmark McMillan Park in the quaint Bloomingdale community into a vast high-rise suburban office park development project.

Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), a consortium of developers seeking to build a 115-foot office tower and a cluster of several other buildings at McMillan Park, provided Dianne Barnes, then Chair of ANC 5E, with the text of a Resolution of Support that the developers wanted the ANC to officially adopt during the monthly ANC 5E meeting in November, 2013, for presentation to the DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) during a subsequent HPRB hearing on the controversial development proposal.

Ms. Tania Jackson of Create Communitas, a VMP outreach contractor, drafted the text of the proposed ANC 5E resolution. Commissioner Barnes accepted the proposed resolution text and placed it on official ANC letterhead for presentation to ANC 5E, according to email records between Commissioner Barnes and VMP’s outreach contractor. In the email dialogue, Ms. Jackson further urged the entire ANC to pass the resolution endorsing the commercial development proposal.  Barnes replied to the developers that she feared problems from the Bloomingdale Civic Association that could conflict with the ANC vote, apparently referring to resistance from the other two Commissioners representing the Bloomingdale community on ANC 5E and the Bloomingdale Civic Association’s official position of opposition to the developer’s plan for McMillan Park.

Other documents obtained by the Friends indicate that Commissioner Barnes and several VMP employees had joined each other on social media networks such as LinkedIn to further coordinate their activities.

The article above is based on source documents numbered 010527, 010531, 010540, and 010543 available on the following website in the directory “Barnes FOIA Documents”:

This article is the first in a series based on documents received from DC Superior Court in response to a 2013 FOIA request concerning the development of McMillan Park.

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DC Councilmembers Criticize Efforts to Neutralize McMillan Development Opponents

Mendelson Questions

Contact: Erin Fairbanks,, 240-506-6777, @CzarinaMaude

District of Columbia Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, joined by Councilmember Elissa Silverman, reacted strongly to community testimony at an oversight hearing on Friday, March 6th. Citizens raised numerous concerns during the session about the use of DC taxpayer funds to pay Baltimore-based public relations firm, Fontaine & Company, to discredit District residents who oppose the Administration’s plan to commercially develop the District-owned 25-acre portion of historic landmark McMillan Park. The DC Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and its development consultant, Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), retained the PR firm with the express goals of “discredit[ing] and neutralize[ing] the impact of opposition,” as laid out in scope-of-work documents uncovered via citizen FOIA requests.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson called the scandal “a bit of PR disaster” during the seven-hour DMPED performance oversight hearing and acknowledged the existence of DC Government documents “that talk about embarrassing the community.” At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman added, “There are some very questionable things in these materials.”

Questions about who paid Fontaine & Co. recurred throughout the hearing. An invoice dated December 23, 2013 for expenditures for Fontaine’s services was signed by Aakash Thakkar of EYA on behalf of VMP, and approved for payment by DMPED on January 22, 2014. However, Mr. Thakkar stated during the Friday oversight hearing, “No public funds were used to suppress community opposition. [The Fontaine contract] was, however, to give folks a safe and comfortable place on our dime, not on the government’s dime, to support the project.”

Referring to other documents suggesting that DMPED was credited back for the Fontaine payment, Chairman Mendelson said, “It would be best to have all the information out, and if DMPED is in any way implicated, say so now [so that] we don’t have to deal with why it was covered up.”

“VMP exists solely to manage the McMillan project, and is paid by DMPED,” commented Andrea Rosen, a resident of Ward 4 and member of Friends of McMillan Park. “However the money was shuffled around, the fact remains that taxpayer funding was used to discredit the legitimacy of District residents who want to comment on the disposition and development of their own public property.”

McMillan Park activist, Debby Hanrahan, alluded in her testimony to the potential criminality of the proposed development deal. Chairman Mendelson responded that he was open to holding a special hearing on McMillan if necessary.

Robin Diener, Director of the Library Renaissance Project, observed that “one grace-note could be Brian Kenner’s assurance to Chairman Mendelson, during an earlier hearing on his nomination to be the new head of DMPED, that things will be done differently on Kenner’s watch, per instructions from Mayor Muriel Bowser. The community surrounding McMillan Park has repeatedly called for an international design competition to adaptively reuse the landmark site. This would be a hugely exciting project to essentially create a central park for DC.”

Fontaine Evidence 1

Fontaine Evidence 2

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MidCity DC: McMillan Development Arrives at a Crossroads

Eyes on McMillan: Making Decisions on the Best Use of the District’s Historic Green Space

By Jeffrey Anderson

With DC still in building mode, and a pile of development projects on her plate, Mayor Muriel Bowser faces unique challenges in ordering her priorities. One project particularly fraught with complexity and controversy has landed on the desk of her agent for historic preservation, who is expected to make major decisions in the coming weeks: The McMillan Sand Filtration Site.

Slated for residential, retail and medical office space, and a park, the 25-acre historic water filtration facility is located in Ward 5, bordered by North Capitol Street, First Street, Michigan Avenue and Channing Street, NW, adjacent to Children’s National Medical Center, MedStar Washington Hospital Center and Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It consists of 20 underground sand filtration cells, 20 cylindrical, ivy-covered brick storage bins and regulator houses, and an expanse of open space adjacent to McMillan Reservoir, which is still in use.

The reservoir, named for Michigan Senator James McMillan,was designed and built in the mid-to-late 19th century by Army General Montgomery Meigs as part of the Washington Aqueduct, which carried water from the Potomac River to the site, where it was filtered and purified for drinking in a sand bed filtration system designed by hydraulics expert Allen Hazen. Upon its completion in 1905, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was commissioned to design the entire area consisting of the reservoir and the filtration site. The public enjoyed the grounds until the early 1950s when the government fenced off the facility to ward off attack by foreign enemies. The Army Corps of Engineers decommissioned the site in 1985 after installing a chemical filtration plant at the reservoir.

The McMillan site is a DC Historic Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites. The National Capital Planning Commission designated it as a site for a national monument or museum. The DC Preservation League lists it among the city’s most endangered historic sites.

In 2007, Vision McMillan Partners, a team consisting of EYA LLC, Trammell Crow Company and local “urban regeneration company” Jair Lynch Development Partners, secured development rights and now has exclusive right to purchase the parcel, which the District bought in 1987 from the Army Corps for $9.3 million. Residents have been at odds with the city over what to do with the site ever since.

If completed, the VMP development would consist of a medical facility with ground-floor retail, a residential block of 281 multifamily units and 146 row houses with a grocery store, and a 6.2 acre park with a community center. It would feature a natural amphitheater, water playgrounds, and a “walking museum” to evoke McMillan’s history. The development would “amplify a unique place in Washington, DC,” according to VMP’s website.

Last Thursday, the developer asked the Historic Preservation Review Board for approval to subdivide the site. Finding the proposal “incompatible” with its historic nature, the board referred the matter to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, Peter Byrne, for a decision in keeping with “the character of the historic landmark.” Byrne already is considering whether an exception to the Landmark Preservation Act should be granted for demolition of the site. That would require a finding of “special merit,” defined as “significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services.”

VMP is confident that its plan meets the criteria: At the HPRB hearing, Lynch likened the preservation of many of the site’s historic elements to a “fine Swiss watch,” with no one factor dominating “the enhancement of its design.”

Why McMillan? Why Now?

Facing an $83 million budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, Bowser already is looking to build a soccer stadium at Buzzards Point, redevelop Walter Reed Army Medical Center and convert St. Elizabeth’s Hospital into a secure facility to house the US Department of Homeland Security.

Even though a master plan for McMillan has been approved and a deal is in place for VMP to purchase the land, which the DC Council has approved as surplus, no sale has occurred and the onus is on the mayor to bring some form of development to fruition. But there are competing visions: To some, the site is an untended eyesore overdue for development. (VMP estimates a 30-year return of approximately $513 million from the project, and the creation of 1,584 permanent jobs, at least a third of which are to be set aside for DC residents.) Others see it as a sacred space, the lungs of the city for much of the 20th century, an architectural and engineering marvel to be preserved for adaptive re-use.

In 1989, two years after the District purchased the site, residents staved off a proposal to build a K-Mart and a church. Though the District has solicited proposals several times over the years, the site has proven too complex to tackle. In 2012, VMP presented its development plan to the HPRB, prompting Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, Stronghold Civic Association and Bloomingdale Civic Association, to oppose the project. A group calling itself “Friends of McMillan Park” has gathered some 7,000 signatures asking the mayor to consider more creative land use designs, preserve at least 50 percent open space and re-purpose the underground caverns. A counter-resistance, under the banner “Create McMillan Park,” supports the VMP plan, as does ANC 5C.

The site is complicated by the Clean Rivers Project, which has DC Water using two underground cells and the southern portion of the site for storm-water retention. In 2013, HPRB approved a master plan that would demolish most of the remainder of the underground cells. Last October, the DC Zoning Commission said it was approving a Planned Use Development permit, but has yet to issue a written order. In December, the Council unanimously approved a resolution to declare the land surplus and a resolution to allow the sale to go forward.

Neither VMP nor District officials appear eager to talk about McMillan. Baltimore’s Fontaine and Company, “a grassroots advocacy and public affairs firm” that represents VMP, referred questions to Bowser. Her office did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who has thrown his weight behind the project.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson made his feelings about McMillan clear in 2012, before he became Council chair: “I am aware of the desire of the government to see this site developed,” he wrote to the HPRB. “Presumably the District would recoup its [financial] investment, this fallow land would be put to use, new housing units would be built and commercial opportunities created, and the tax base would grow. But enthusiasm for development must be tempered against the qualities of this unique site — exactly the purpose for the Landmark Preservation Act — which is why the proposed plan should be rejected.”

However, since becoming chairman, Mendelson has sided with his colleagues. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Three new members of the Council are playing catch-up on the McMillan saga, and two more will be elected this year. Recently elected At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman, an Independent, said she appreciates the proximity to nearby hospitals, which are major employers, but noted that transportation options are limited and expressed an interest in preserving “green space.” Should a bond issue or other matter come before the Finance and Revenue Committee, she said, “I will be looking more closely.”

Proponents regard the project as a virtual fait accompli. “We need approval for the affordable housing component, and then the only thing left is a lawsuit,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition For Smarter Growth, with a chuckle. Cort points to the medical offices as a revenue generating enterprise in an area that suffers for jobs. “We need to increase the role of the medical center and redevelop what is underutilized space, and integrate it with public space and incorporate retail and affordable housing.”

Cort notes that, “We added 30,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010, and since then even more. We want to stop sprawl and bring people into the city. The challenges now are how to make the city affordable and adaptive.”

Peter Harnik, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, which has no official position, said undeveloped, public-owned urban land with historical protection is somewhat of a rarity, and that it takes a long time for the public to take the issues seriously. “It’s hard to fall in love with [McMillan],” Harnik said, noting that it’s been fenced off for so long that “the city has marginalized it.” Harnik acknowledged the importance of creating jobs, housing space and transit options while preserving “a significant chunk” of green space, and pointed to “tremendous success” in Seattle, New York and Detroit to “use indigenous historical artifacts” in the adaptive re-use of existing infrastructure.

At What Cost McMillan?

Although tight-lipped on McMillan, District officials seem resolute in preparing to meet the challenges articulated by Cort and other “smart growth” advocates. But for the moment, it is unclear how Bowser will proceed with such a full plate before her. In that regard, McMillan is a slow-rolling train, destined to test Bowser’s vision and ability to balance growth through density with preservation and re-use of historic sites.

The project could clear another hurdle any week now. The Mayor’s Agent is expected to rule by the end of March on whether the plan is compatible with McMillan’s historic nature, and delivers “significant benefit” from a planning, architectural and community needs perspective, which could set the stage for a sale of the land and, eventually, shovels in the dirt.

But other issues exist beyond community opposition and the potential for a lawsuit, not the least of which is how to pay for the project at a time in which the city is weighing numerous other high-profile developments.

A Nov. 25, 2014, memo from DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt to DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson warns that “Funds are not sufficient in FY 2015 through FY 2018 budget and financial plan” to transfer the property to VMP under a “Land Disposition Agreement” signed by the parties last October. For the District, the estimated costs of meeting its obligations to provide “infrastructure improvements and amenities” is $78 million, according to DeWitt. Currently, approximately $45 million is budgeted through FY 2016, resulting in a $33 million shortfall.

Once approved for sale, DeWitt continues, the disposition of the site will reduce the city’s real property assets by more than $31 million.
In order to facilitate the sale, the District must amend its laws to ensure proceeds go to upholding its obligations under the LDA, the memo states. Even then, the District will be $6 million short of fully funding the project.

Meanwhile, the city is paying VMP’s bills and those costs are adding up. Last October, the DC Council approved a $1,340,000 budget for VMP for development services in FY2015 alone. According to contractor and subcontractor invoices submitted to the mayor’s office, the District already has paid out more than $6 million, for landscape design, consulting fees, public relations services, and lobbyist and lawyer fees.

All of which suggests that Bowser’s agent for historical preservation is about to make a decision that could be an early but key piece of her evolving legacy — one that she’ll have to figure out how to pay for.

This is the first of the Eyes on McMillan series that will examine how the District is making decisions on the best use of its land and resources.


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