If it were not clear before, let the current state of discussion around planning for the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant leave no doubt that this site is the biggest development headache in the entire city (which, considering the competition, is saying something).

At the moment, there is a master plan for the 25-acre site, which the Historic Preservation Review Board will take up today—-though I’ll be shocked if they finish it without overflowing to another session. After re-starting the two-decade-old planning process in 2010, and another round of “salons” to introduce their concept to the surrounding neighborhoods, developers Jair Lynch and EYA have racked up a chorus of qualified “no”s: The Pleasant Plains Civic Association and neighboring Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B voted unanimously to oppose it as too dense for the historic nature of the site. The Bloomingdale Civic Association was overwhelmingly against it, passing a four-page resolution outlining objections and recommendations. The Committee of 100 also weighed in on the side of less development, along with Councilmember Phil Mendelson

In a somewhat surprising move, however, the ANC that actually includes McMillan decided to be constructive: They decided on Tuesday to support the plan, with a short list of issues on which they’ll continue to work with the developers to improve.* The vote was almost evenly split, with three white, relatively new commissioners leading the charge for something different (not that race or length of service is a real dividing line here, since people of all types fall on both sides, but the pro-development camp in this case includes more longer-term commissioners, and had been backed by ex-Councilmember Harry Thomas). Listed concerns include the amount of open space on the site, stormwater and traffic management, and the fine points of a new recreation center.

If data collected by another neighborhood advisory group set up to negotiate a community benefits agreement is any indication, the park issue is an important one for folks living around the site. Preliminary results from 455 surveys administered door-to-door at the homes surrounding McMillan found that 85 percent want at least half the site preserved as open space. The current proposal actually comes close to that, but it’s difficult to see, since it’s spread across one large park and a few smaller areas.

The problem here is that, other than developers and bloggers—-and let’s face it, who naturally trusts either?—-few people are out there making the case that the site needs a certain number of housing units in order to attract the kind of retail and new transportation options that people always ask for. Meanwhile, the folks who want open space also want shorter buildings, when taller ones would allow for more of everything.

It’s also true, however, that the plan thus far isn’t especially charismatic in how it re-uses the site. Without detailed architectural renderings, the development program appears conventional. The 4.6-acre park in the center will be nice enough, retaining a row of the old silos for a flavor of what used to be there, but it’s easy to focus instead on the 18 out of 20 underground cells that will be destroyed. Perhaps that’s practical, at a time when public funding for non-market goods is hard to come by. It’s just not a powerful enough vision to win over the skeptics, who tend to drive these community processes, and who argue that the site is so special it needs something unlike anything else in D.C. To some extent, they also say no as a negotiating position, thinking that to say “yes, but” loses them all pull down the line.

“The minute you vote to support it, you lose any leverage that you have,” said Tony Norman, an ANC 1B commissioner and a leader of the opposition. “We’re simply saying, ‘we haven’t gotten to the promised land yet, but maybe we can.'”

As for the Historic Preservation Office itself, which typically drives the opinion of the Board: The staff report is very understanding of the developer’s challenges, and just asks for a greater degree of attention to some of the site’s historic contours, as well as a greater setback from North Capitol Street. So perhaps they’ll sign off on the plan on after all.


UPDATE, May 26: There is some disagreement over what, exactly, the Commission voted to do, since there was no written resolution at the time of the vote. The final resolution says that the Commission voted “to indicate its appreciation for and general support of ongoing efforts by the District, VMP and the ANC 5C Community to reach consensus for development at the site,” but advocates for revisions, including the elimination of one row of townhouses. Here’s the full thing:
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