Monday, July 16, 2012

WaPo: "Plans for McMillan site draw fire"

From Washington Post Business reporter Jonathan O'Connell:

By Jonathan O`Connell, Published: July 15

The green color of the stickers should surprise no one.

Green space has been a point of contention between neighbors and developers of the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant since 2000 when the city began considering it for reuse.

Backers of the project donned green stickers at the Historic Preservation Review Board July 12, but opponents of the plan are the ones who keep returning to the issue of open parkland.

The 25-acre site, located south of Washington Hospital Center between North Capitol and First streets Northwest, became the city`s first water cleansing system in 1909, but was abandoned by 1988 and has since been decaying and fenced off from the public.

Eyeing development, District officials selected a team led by town home builder EYA and Jair Lynch in 2007. In the five-year push for approval, they have attended more than 50 community meetings, added new partners (developer Trammell Crow, planning firm EE&K, landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz) and scrapped plans deemed too onerous by neighbors.

Recently the team, called Vision McMillan Partners, hired a new project director, Anne Corbett, from the arts group Cultural Development Corp. Lynch said hiring Corbett ``would help us breathe new life into this gem.``

The team`s newest plan calls for town homes on the southern end of the site, a park in the middle and apartments, a grocery store, other shops and offices at the northern end, across the street from the hospital. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has been a strong backer, proposing $48.1 million in capital funds over four years.

But residents have repeatedly and consistently asked for more park space than what the developers propose. Police officers have been called to escort city officials to sometimes contentious meetings on the project. And former council member Harry Thomas Jr., a strong backer of the developers, admitted to stealing $353,000 in taxpayer funds and was sent to federal prison.

``There is not one community organization that supports this present plan,`` Tony Norman, amember of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, told the board. His ANC, west of the site, unanimously voted to oppose the plan.

A commissioner from ANC 5C, Hugh Youngblood, asked the panel ``to persuade the current administration to reexamine a terribly misguided decision`` to develop a place Frederick L. Olmsted helped design.

At the Historic Preservation Review Board meeting, which will be continued to accommodate a long line of witnesses, some opponents introduced slides of their own plans, which would include low-rise housing, more public space and an ``urban beach.``

The disagreements put the developers in a difficult spot because the site already represents ``one of the most challenging sites imaginable to both preserve and adapt for current use,`` according to an HPRB staff report. A network of 20 concrete cells lie below grade, connected to the surface by more than 2,000 manhole covers. Built with un-reinforced concrete, the cells cannot support new buildings above or be replaced by a new foundation.

Twice in recent years some cells have collapsed, according to the team`s engineering consultant, Kirk Mettam. ``It`s a very dangerous situation,`` he said.

Vision McMillan plans to preserve all of the site`s above-ground regulatory houses and sand storage houses, re-using most of them and saving one in its original state. The team said it also hopes to reconstruct a statue fountain originally on site that has been dismantled.

In the meeting last week, the team showcased the plan`s park space, saying the plan amounted to 34 percent open space (some of it private), 44 percent buildings and 22 percent walkways and connections.

Matthew J. Bell, EE&K principal, said the central park was the size of almost five football fields. ``The master plan in 2012 really begins with preservation,`` he said.

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