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The Fight to Save D.C. McMillan Park Isn't Over

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McMillan Park and Sand Filtration site
McMillan Park and Sand Filtration site
(Image by Photo by Dale Sundstrom via flickr)
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It looked like the David-versus-Goliath fight to save a historic park in the Nation's Capital had, after nearly three decades, finally run its course.

On December 7th, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and city officials broke ground on a $720 million development on the 25-acre McMillan Park and Sand Filtration Plant site.

Developers and city officials were eager to take advantage of the green expanse, which filtered the city's water beneath its surface for 80 years, and turn the park into two million square feet of mostly office space and high-end housing, with a six-acre park.

At the groundbreaking Bowser said the pressing question was: "When are they going to do something about that place?---Now," she told the assembled crowd before she and other officials grabbed shovels.

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But the very next day the project was halted.

Overturned

In a lawsuit brought by Friends of McMillan Park, opponents of the planned development, the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated decisions of the D.C. Zoning Commission and Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation, which had both approved the deal. The court ruled that the city, which owns the land, provided insufficient justification for the mass development, which would destroy much of the historic site.

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The court expressed concern over the project's impact on surrounding communities, which already struggle with grinding traffic, and, in low-lying neighborhoods to the south, like Bloomingdale, flooding.

To address the flooding, D.C. Water is using one of McMillan's 20 underground cells to bore a massive tunnel deep underground, and another cell to store storm water.

It's unclear what impact an additional two million square feet of development on McMillan would have on flooding, particularly with other huge projects coming online -- including across the street at Washington Hospital Center, nearby at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and around Catholic University in Brookland.

The D.C. Court of Appeals also questioned whether the project may push out residents in surrounding communities, and called on the Zoning Commission to "explicitly address" arguments concerning issues of gentrification, land values, and displacement."

While most media reports have characterized the ruling as a mere set back, Jeffrey Anderson, a reporter who's provided thorough coverage on McMillan, sees it differently. It's a "stunning rebuke," he wrote.

The decision not only rebukes the District but also the development team, which has been controversial in its own right.

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A "Flawed" Process

The city's process for selecting the site's developer -- Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), a coalition led by powerhouse EYA -- was "flawed," according to D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, who called for the project to be re-bid.

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Pete Tucker is an independent DC reporter.

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