WaPo Op-Ed: A Chance to get McMillan Development Right

The Washington Post published the following op-ed on January 13, 2017.

By Kirby Vining
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) recently held a “groundbreaking” ceremony for the long-embattled development of the 25-acre parcel of land known as McMillan Park, a historic location in the heart of the District along North Capitol Street that should be an inspiring, world-class public space that would make us proud. But the District’s handling of the development of McMillan Park has been a slow-motion train wreck.One day after the groundbreaking, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision overturning the District’s zoning and historic preservation approvals for the project at the old McMillan sand filtration site. The court’s resounding rejection of the agency approvals sends the entire process back to D.C. officials to reconsider how to proceed with the project.

The court’s decision vindicates the arguments of the community that the approvals “failed to adequately explain why it was necessary to disregard” certain key policies in the Comprehensive Plan, which should “guide executive and legislative decisions.” The court also found that agency approvals failed to comply with D.C.’s historic preservation law, which prohibits harming landmark sites such as McMillan except under very limited circumstances.

The District’s disregard for its own preservation and planning laws in the McMillan Park case is only the tip of the iceberg of flaws in this project. Consider:

There was essentially no competition on the project, as pointed out by the D.C. auditor in an October 2015 letter to the D.C. Council chairman warning that the entire project should be rebid. In response, the chairman authored an “emergency” bill in April 2016, retroactively waiving the requirement for bidding out this project.

The District has signed an exclusive rights agreement with its selected development team, precluding competition for any aspect of the project. Residents were presented with a single, high-density “spec” development project whose impacts are grossly disproportionate to its public benefits. The location of this high-density development, about a mile from the nearest Metro station, in an area that already suffers from severe traffic congestion, is asking for trouble. The court decision correctly criticized the District’s failure to undertake any consideration of alternative designs that could achieve the same public benefits — a park, a grocery and affordable housing — while reducing the level of harm to this iconic site.

The McMillan site is assessed by the city to be worth approximately $100 million, as is. Nevertheless, the District has agreed to pay all the predevelopment costs for the project, estimated to be approximately another $100 million, thereby assuming the developers’ risk, so that the developers can build for an undisclosed rate of return almost a million square feet of commercial space that no one wants or needs. And here is the real kicker: The council has agreed to sell this land — assessed at $100 million plus the additional $100 million taxpayer-funded upgrade — back to the developers for only $17 million. What a bargain.

What can we do now? First and foremost, this is not, as D.C. officials have said, a mere “bump in the road” toward approval of this development. Changes to the project must be made in order to comply with D.C. law. And let me also be clear: The opponents of the current development want a design and development that raises our game, not lowers our sights. We recommend three simple steps:

  1. Rebid the project in an open and transparent manner as outlined by the auditor and consistent with D.C. laws;
  2. Ensure that there is a world-class design competition commensurate with the historic and land value of the site; and
  3. Demand a clear and binding accounting from the winning bidder to clearly establish the benefits to the District and taxpayers of the project.

Bowser has a huge opportunity here to undo years of misguided and secretive backroom dealings and irresponsible spending that she inherited from her predecessors. She should let the sunshine in and ensure that the site is developed in a manner consistent with the unique character of the District, our history and the law.

The writer is treasurer of Friends of McMillan Park.