Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In a stunning rebuke of the D.C. Zoning Commission, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Agent for historic preservation, the District’s Office of Planning, and a three-firm development consortium, the D.C. Court of Appeals Thursday vacated zoning approvals for the city’s longest-running, and most complex and contentious, real estate project: The 25-acre, mixed-use development planned for the historic McMillan Sand Filtration Facility.

The appeal of a D.C. Zoning Commission order and two decisions by the Mayor’s Agent to green-light the project was brought by a citizen activist group known as Friends of McMillan Park and supported by other grassroots organizations that advocate for preservation, sustainability, and reasonable development. The opponents’ challenge focused largely on the height and density of the proposed buildings on the historic site and what they claim was faulty agency review and decision-making. 

The master developer, Vision McMillan Partners—consisting of Trammel Crow Company, Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, and EYA—had previously received Zoning Commission approval for a planned unit development on the site; In two other orders, the Mayor’s Agent approved VMP’s applications to demolish historic sand cells that for decades served as a filtration site for D.C.’s drinking water and to subdivide the site and build a 2-million-square-foot development consisting of residences, medical office buildings, recreational facilities and a park.

In its order, the three-judge appellate panel sent the zoning permits and approvals back to the city for further proceedings. The ruling landed just one day after a ceremonial groundbreaking that featured Bowser, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner and Ward 5 Council Member Kenyan McDuffie speaking to a crowd, then donning hardhats and dipping shovels into a pile of sand from the underground cells. 

At the ceremony on Wednesday, Bowser heralded the 25-acre development at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue in Northwest, which she says will create 6,000 jobs and more than a hundred units of affordable housing, and produce $1.2 billion in “economic activity” over the next three decades.

“Today’s groundbreaking is the culmination of nearly 30 years of work to ensure the McMillan redevelopment will best serve the residents of Ward 5,” Bowser said. “When I took office, I committed to moving big projects forward so D.C. communities can benefit from the District’s growth and development. McMillan is proof of my administration’s unwavering commitment to getting more residents on pathways to the middle class by creating employment opportunities and affordable housing.”

McMillan is just one of Bowser’s efforts to advance long-awaited projects, including a sports arena and practice facility at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Ward 8, redevelopment of 66 acres at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and construction of a 20,000-seat D.C. United Soccer Stadium at Buzzard Point.

But the untimely court ruling on Thursday sent the Bowser administration and community stakeholders who opposed the specific plan for McMillan scrambling to parse its significance.

“The District believes the issues outlined by the courts will be addressed so work can continue on this transformative project,” says Joaquin McPeek, spokesman for DMPED. “Ward 5 residents have waited nearly 30 years to see McMillan reach its full potential—they shouldn’t have to wait any longer. We will work with urgency to ensure it delivers the jobs, housing, retail, and open space this community has continued to ask for.”

And in a statement Friday, the developers say they are “disappointed with some aspects of the court’s ruling, yet significantly encouraged by its agreement with the Zoning Commission that our project is consistent with” D.C.’s long-term planning framework. “This is a clear validation of our development plans,” they add. “Our team echoes [DMPED’s] sentiments and shares the belief that we can and will address with urgency the issues outlined in the court’s order.”

Meanwhile, says Kirby Vining, a key leader of the Friends of McMillan: “I’m literally shaking.” The group is meeting with its lawyers to assess the implications of the court’s order. Attorney Andrea Ferster says that three separate cases—zoning, subdivision and demolition—now go back to the respective agencies.

“The court made clear that the purpose of the remand is not simply for the agencies to redraft their findings and conclusions to reinforce their earlier decisions,” says Ferster, an expert in zoning, land use, historical preservation, and environmental law who has represented the group since 1990. “Instead, the court suggested that the agencies may hold additional hearings ‘or even reach a different result.’”

McMillan is an enigmatic site that has been the subject of often heated civic debate since D.C. bought the land for $9.3 million from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1987. Now the $720 million redevelopment faces a new roadblock.

“Given the number of problematic issues addressed by the court, which permeate all three decisions, our view is that the applicants need to go back to the drawing board and take a fresh look at alternatives to the high-density development that was presented as the only option for the agencies to consider,” Ferster says. 

Read the opinion here.

This post has been updated.