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No McMillan bids?

City planners leaning toward design competition for open space

(Published October 23, 2000)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

City planning officials say they are leaning toward discarding their original idea of traditional commercial development for the former McMillan Reservoir site in favor of a more "creative," open space approach advanced by the surrounding community.

"The community wants to see more of an alternative, creative approach that respects the historic nature of the site...(and) the Office of Planning is pretty much in agreement with that," said Derrick Woody, an economic revitalization planner who is managing the McMillan planning project for the city.

Rather than soliciting development proposals for the 25-acre city-owned site at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue, Woody said the city now is considering holding a design competition that would retain some of the park-like amenities neighborhood residents are seeking.

The National Capital Planning Commission recently designated McMillan, which was the nation’s first sand-filtration water purification site when it opened in 1905, for consideration as a future site of public memorials. The designation means federal money may be available to help preserve or develop the area. Earlier this year, the D.C. Preservation League designated the site as one of the city’s 10 most endangered historic locations.

Some D.C. residents, who were involved in a bitter court fight 10 years ago that successfully enjoined the city from moving forward with development plans for the historic site, say a "sea change" in attitude appears to have occurred among the city’s planners since they began meeting in a series of four community planning workshops during the summer. The final workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 28 at Trinity College.

"The community was very upset that the city had predetermined that they wanted development – and complete development – of the site before the workshops began," said Tony Norman, an attorney who helped neighbors fight the previous development plans and who has been actively involved in the current planning efforts as a citizen representative for Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham.

"At the second workshop, they presented three development options – heavy development, medium development and light development, but all traditional development plans – and they wanted everybody to grade those three, and we simply said, ‘No. We want something else.’ The whole workshop went into complete chaos," Norman said.

The third and fourth workshops were rescheduled as a result, with much of the third workshop on Sept. 23 used for community presentations of alternative development ideas.

City officials have noted that even preserving part of the site’s historic structures will require some on-site activity that generates income for continued maintenance. Norman, who chairs the McMillan Park Committee, said residents will continue to try to persuade city officials that maintaining parkland on the site is "workable and doable" by also operating such compatible, environmentally friendly enterprises as a farmers market or a bottled water plant there to generate revenue.

He said residents also are encouraging the city to consider nearby development – such as the planned New York Avenue Metro station, the NoMA high-tech corridor and the 55-acre Soldiers Home site – in an overall development plan for the area, rather than looking at the McMillan site in a vacuum.

While Norman said neighboring residents are encouraged by city planners’ unexpected receptiveness to the community’s alternative ideas, he said past experiences are causing them to remain "kind of skeptical that they’re going to follow through."

"The Office of Planning is doing what they can, but there are a lot of powerful interests that see money on that site and that’s what makes us nervous," he said, noting that Howard University, Catholic University and developer Joseph Horning – who was slated to develop the site 10 years ago – are among those who have expressed interest.

"They’re not just going to walk away from a $100 million project," Norman said.
"We know they aren’t going to give up."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator