There have been so many plans for development of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site that if you put them together in a slideshow, it might make for a dramatic film—except with no clear heroes or villains, and no happy ending. Yet, at least.
The most recent main characters are trying to provide one. In their first attempt nearly three years ago, Jair Lynch Development Partners and Bethesda-based townhouse builder EYA failed spectacularly to gain community buy-in for their plan to develop a whole new neighborhood—complete with housing, retail, and office space—on the fenced, 25-acre site that lies just south of the Veterans Administration hospital, along North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue.
This kind of thing is usually Jair Lynch’s jam. The former Olympian (gymnastics, silver medalist, 1996 Atlanta games) has built a powerhouse firm over the last 12 years by working on what he calls “neighborhood assets”: Libraries, affordable housing, hospitals, schools, non-profit headquarters. Operating out of a rowhouse office on U Street, he’s become known for navigating sensitive projects like the redevelopment of subsidized housing into mixed-use buildings at Northwest One adjacent to NoMa and Mount Vernon Triangle.
This time, the process went awry, dealing Lynch a setback on the biggest project of his career. But instead of abandoning it, this fall, Lynch, EYA’s Aakash Thakkar, and office developer Adam Weers of Trammell Crow came back with a trio of eminent planners and community engagement professionals—paid a total of $79,000 by the city, which is fronting predevelopment costs and taking on a greater role in management decisions—who could start a new conversation about what neighbors wanted, and turn around a plan they could understand.
That concluded Saturday morning in the basement of All Nations Church on North Capitol Street. The latest plan is prettier and more detailed, with more thought behind its park space and preservation of the site’s bizarre-looking structures that sit both aboveground and below. Even longtime McMillan watchers admit it’s an improvement.
Lynch, et al., should hope so. Now, they need neighborhood support more than ever; the city has less and less money for more and more projects ($60 million was pledged for McMillan, but Vince Gray’s administration will decide how fast it gets doled out). Meanwhile, key retailers like grocery stores are popping up all over the city, making McMillan even less competitive as a destination than its relatively low-income demographics would indicate. Public enthusiasm could help put them over the edge—and at this point, it all depends on whether Lynch, Thakkar, and Weers can gain their trust.
The community member who’s arguably been the most influential in McMillan’s development—or non-development—is already a lost cause. “The bottom line is, we and the community are still disappointed,” says Tony Norman, who helped get the McMillan site designated as a D.C. landmark, and still chairs sits on the citizen group set up to advise the project in 2007. “The plan that they came out with is the same one that we rejected the last time.”
The irony of Norman’s opposition: Reassured by the participation of historic preservation experts with the Alexander Company, he originally backed Lynch’s bid for the project. But when the team came back in 2008 with a dense development program that didn’t make particularly imaginative use of the site’s historic elements, activists felt betrayed, and sued the city twice for documents detailing discussions with the developers.
To a large extent, the process got bogged down in details and ratios of parks to built space, while the developers failed to offer a compelling enough vision to people who might have been won over.
“I think jumping to technical reports, and jumping to very, very specific things, like is it two units or is it four units, it skipped over the healing process,” Lynch says. “People weren’t ready to give their ideas. They were ready to say ‘no.’”
In some ways, though, the aborted process and ongoing tension reflects the neighborhood’s unfamiliarity with how development usually works—residents further downtown, for example, just have a lot more experience with what happens where in the regulatory alphabet soup. Even though the city funded preliminary traffic and stormwater management studies for McMillan a year earlier than required, some neighbors want final reports before signing off on a project that will bring thousands of new residents, cars, and jobs.
The result is a lingering cloud of wariness.
“There should be nothing that y’all can’t produce,” says Bloomingdale Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner John Salatti. “Nothing. As long as you’re withholding documents, there’s always going to be that sense of, well, what is it that you’re trying to hide?”
To re-start the process, the developers knew they’d have to get out of the spotlight. That part was easy.
A new team included Maurice Cox, who preaches “democratic design” from a professorship at the University of Virginia, and lent the four community meetings an air of dignity and legitimacy that effectively neutralized some of the most disruptive neighborhood regulars. While the developers relaxed in jeans and sneakers, working on laptops and greeting newcomers, Matt Bell of master planning firm Ehrenkrantz Eckstut and Kuhn and landscape architect Warren Byrd Jr. of Nelson Byrd Woltz ran small group sessions, and even sat down later with interested neighbors for one-on-one evening “salons” at the Big Bear Café in Bloomingdale.
The process won over Alain Joseph, who lives a few blocks south of McMillan. When participants in one meeting were given stickers to place on different elements of the design they liked, he put all of his on an amphitheater, which he’d spoken with Byrd about incorporating. When he saw the final design, Joseph was thrilled.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s better than I could have imagined!” he says. “I felt like a king! If you could see how long, how spacious it was—all I wanted was a little corner, and they gave me half a football field!”
For two nights, Weers, Thakkar, and Lynch also did small group sessions at the Big Bear. The three of them at the head of a big table—none of them white, all smiling, all D.C. born and raised—did their best to convey sincerity, and make the case that density is essential to making it all work. At one point, a woman asked about their long-term commitment to the project. Thakkar took on the question as if he’d been waiting for someone to pose it.
“A lot of companies will get an entitlement and sell the land to somebody else,” he told her. “I can guarantee that these folks you see here, barring something unforeseen, will be with this project five years from now, seven years from now.”
They don’t mention the fact that, despite the re-started process and promises of a blank slate, certain elements were predetermined. At first glance, Tony Norman is right: There are 7.33 acres of green space, compared to eight last time, and 1.75 million square feet of building space, almost exactly the same amount as before. There’s still the same basic layout of tall office buildings on the north end, multifamily apartment buildings in the middle, and townhouses to the south.
Still, some elements are better. All the aboveground historic structures will be preserved for potential reuse, several different parks are planned in detail, and office buildings have been pushed away from the northeast corner to make room for more green space.
The funny thing is, the two-year delay itself may have made for a different project, because conceptions of how urban development should be done—and how it can be financed—have evolved, even in a relatively short time. Lynch points out that successful densified grocery stores have recently disproven the need for vast surface parking lots, and also, more residents want to stay and have families in formerly-marginal areas now rather than automatically bolting for the suburbs.
“Could this same team have worked out three years ago?” Lynch muses. “I don’t know, because people may have been thinking ‘I’m going to cash out with another home equity loan, and I don’t really have to worry about this.’ Or ‘I may not be worried about schools at all,’ because schools may not have been part of the lexicon of what we’re thinking about.”
What’s next? The team will make its case to Gray’s administration, and hurdle its way through two Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, the Zoning Commission, the Historic Preservation Review Board, and National Capital Planning Commission. They will beg retailers to lease space, put their best foot forward with investors, and plead with residents to help them advocate at every step of the way.
Some of the people who have been waiting the longest are the ones who haven’t come out to every meeting, and who wonder whether anything will ever come of it. Like Clara Luter, 72, who moved to North Capitol Street nearly 40 years ago. She’d like to be able to walk around in the park, instead of around the fence, as she does on sunny days. Looking out across the grassy expanse on Sunday evening, lots of buildings and many more people are hard to contemplate.
“I still can’t put my head around it,” she says, in her doorway. “But I do think it needs to be developed, because we need to use everything we have.”