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New condos, offices, bars and restaurants are sprouting around the city. And while many residents are enjoying DC’s development boom, that doesnt mean developers are loved. Some people distrust the motives and methods of those involved in redeveloping the city, not to mention developers’ often close ties to government officials and politicians. We speak to architect Roger Lewis about development in the District, and we also speak to advocates about the contentious development plans for the McMillan Sand Filtration site.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. DC is in the midst of a transformation. Seemingly on a daily basis, new condos, offices, bars and restaurants are sprouting around the city. And though many residents are enjoying the District's development boom, the real estate developers of those new hot spots, they're not getting much love. Some people distrust their motives, their methods. Others take issue with the often close ties between developers and government officials.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOur regular guest, Roger Lewis, reminds us that often overlooked in public opinion, is the major investment and risk taken on by developers. Roger joins us in studio. He is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He also writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. Hi, Roger. How's it going?
MR. ROGER LEWISGreetings. It's going well, thank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation with Roger Lewis, comments or questions -- do you think developers get a bad rap, or is it deserved? And if so, why? 800-433-8850. You can join us on our website at kojoshow.org. Shoot us an email to email@example.com. Or a tweet @kojoshow. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about one development project that's been particularly contentious, the McMillan San Filtration site. But first, real estate development in general, given how much of DC is under construction at the moment.
NNAMDIRoger, when it comes to public opinion, developers don't seem to have the best of reputations. If we could measure it, they would probably be somewhere about the level of Congress in terms of approval ratings. Why is that?
LEWISI think the problem is that, like in so many areas, there have been times when developers have done things which have been ethically questionable or have exerted undue influence on the decision-making process that governments undertake. And you don't need too many of them. And this might happen, you know, one percent, two percent of the time. But it doesn't take a whole lot of such things to -- rotten apples to spoil the barrel.
LEWISI think that one of the points I made in that recent "Shaping the City" column in the Washington Post is that, by and large, you know, the overwhelmingly large majority -- 90 percent or maybe greater -- of all projects that are developed by real estate developers are done in conformance with public policy, regulations, cumbrance of plans and et cetera, that have been created and adopted and enforced by the public sector, not by the developers.
NNAMDIWhat is it that makes a particular project interesting to a developer?
LEWISWell, let's talk about for-profit developers.
LEWISBecause we also have nonprofits. But for-profit developers are in the business of making profit. They make an investment acquiring land, spending a lot of money and time preparing, planning. And it can take a lot of time. I mean it's not unusual for development projects to take years before ground is broken. Their ultimate motive is to create something the market is going to accept and is willing to pay for. And in so doing and in risking the investment that they are risking, making a fair return. And I don't think anybody would quibble with that.
LEWISI think it's -- I've been a developer. I should disclose that I -- in addition to having an architectural firm way back when, I started a development entity and did develop a couple of projects for which I was both my own client -- I was the architect and the client. And I remember very well, my motives were, among other things, to hopefully make a profit, a return on investment. But also I wanted to create something beautiful, something that would be -- that would serve people who would buy it or rent it. I think developers are very sensitive to the marketplace. And that's one of the things that most influences in fact -- exactly when and what and how they do it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What do you think about the development happening around DC? Is it exciting to you? Do you think it's good for the city or not? 800-433-8850. Another issue arises, Roger, when groups of community residents don't support development. That tends to make it controversial. And of course it's always difficult to expect everyone to agree on things.
LEWISWell, that's almost a given. One of the things that's happened over the last 30, 40 years is that public involvement with the process of development has intensified. It's much greater than it used to be. When I built the houses over in Palisades that I built in 1970, '71, we were able to do it essentially as matter of right. We didn't have to go to a public hearing. I went around the neighborhood and showed people the model. Some were concerned that we were building on an empty lot that they thought was going to be forever empty. And that always -- there are always people who feel a sense of ownership...
NNAMDIThe lovely forever empty sites.
LEWISYeah. Oh, yeah. Exactly. And, but that was 1970. Things are different. I mean I think nowadays, any savvy developer or development team recognizes that the stakeholders in the process include people who don't own anything on the site they're developing or that's -- but have a stake in it in other ways. And therefore, they need to be brought into the process. So I would say most savvy developers today -- in fact sometimes it's required by law -- but most of them realize they have got to engage the community, the citizens of the area, the immediate neighbors and even people that are not right next door in the process, at least to hear what they have to say, to take into account their concerns.
LEWISThey may not agree. But they -- I think most developers that I know and have worked with are sensitive to that.
NNAMDISome people question why city governments seem to cede so much control over development projects to the developers and they worry about developers getting big tax breaks, valuable land. Talk about that.
LEWISAgain, it varies. I think the -- one of the things that motivates, I think, jurisdictions -- cities and counties -- to sit down with developers and talk about exactions and quid pro quo, et cetera, is that some of the things that the city wants, the developer, in order to provide it and do it in an economical way or do it in a way that they don't lose money, requires some subsidy of some form. And that's particularly true for affordable housing or affording dwelling units. It's true for other onsite and offsite amenities that would normally not be on the menu of what the developer would provide without some incentives.
LEWISI think -- and I think even the discussion about those quid pro quo arrangements usually involve citizen input. But I think that what happens, in my opinion, is that often there are people who are opposed to development simply because it represents change. And they see it as threatening sometimes, or seeing it as leading to a situation where they won't find a parking space, traffic congestion. There are a bunch of things of that sort that almost always are mentioned when people object to what developers are doing and how they're doing it.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, real estate developers often sink an enormous amount of money into projects. What risks do developers face in taking on a major project?
LEWISWell, the biggest risk is you could build a project and no one would come.
NNAMDIYou can lose your shirt.
LEWISYou could lose your shirt. Absolutely. And I've had that experience as well. I've built a project -- my last project as a developer and architect was a project that built in Baltimore. Timing was a problem. Interest rates in 1980 went to 17 percent. And that was a case where I had taken a risk. And what looked great in 1979 was a disaster by 1981, because of what happened in the financial market, over which the developer has no control, nor does a city or a state or a county.
NNAMDIThat was the old stagflation economy, wasn't it?
LEWISOh, it -- well, it was -- no, in the '70s was the stagflation. What happened in 1980, '81, is interest rates soared. I mean this -- to many of your listeners, they must be wondering what I'm talking about. Interest rates went to 16, 17 percent...
NNAMDIThis was the end of the Carter, beginning of the Reagan administration.
LEWISExactly. You couldn't get a mortgage. No, there are a lot of risks. The biggest risk is the risk of pricing yourself in a way where the market doesn't -- can't afford what you're offering -- this, the developer. Or there are construction risks during that period. Even getting zoning or getting the entitlements, as we call them, from a city or county that one needs to build something, they may or may not come. One could -- I've seen developers spend a fortune on attorneys and trying to get some entitlement, and they end up not getting it, but they spent a lot of money. There's a lot of money...
NNAMDII was about to add, the number of regulatory hoops developers must comply with or jump through, that's a lot. It's not just zoning, is it?
LEWISThat's right. Oh, yeah. Well, they've got -- today, it's a real big array of requirements and regulations. I mean there are environmental protection regulations, there are regulations that are city, state and federal. And we architects, actually, we spend a lot of our time, when clients and developers hire us -- after all, we're the ones who have to design the projects -- we spend a lot of time, much more than we used to when I started practice in the late '60s, early '70s, the zoning ordinance was an inch thick and now it's three inches thick -- so actually we're -- architects are very familiar with this challenge of going through all of these regulations.
LEWISEverything from making places accessible to all people who would use them to making sure that you're meeting the energy requirements, the energy criteria that didn't exist in 1970.
NNAMDIBeyond regulatory hoops, there are standards of investors -- standards that investors and lenders -- standards of investors and lenders that have to be met.
LEWISYep. That's another set of hoops. There are -- the people who -- most of the money that's used for development is borrowed. I think that's something that maybe not everybody realizes. A very large percentage of development funding is debt funding, as opposed to equity funding, where the developer and partners put in their own money. And of course those people who are making those investments or making those loans have their own requirements. For example, it's not unusual for a lender in a project that involves commercial uses to insist on a certain amount of parking. Part of that's based on history. That is, they've gone through a bunch of projects over a few decades and they've found, oh, you've got to have so many parking spaces.
LEWISThat's a problem because sometimes circumstances are such that you really don't need as many parking spaces. The developer may want to reduce those because the studies show they're not needed. Nevertheless, the insurance company, let's say, who's putting in the money, might say, "No, no. If you've got 1,000 square feet of office, we want three parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of office space. So that's another part of the challenge.
NNAMDIThat has to be negotiated. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will have our discussion of one particular development in the District of Columbia, the McMillan Sand Filtration site. You can start calling now, 800-433-8850, with your questions or comments. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. One development project here in the district that's been particularly contentious, a 25-acre plot of land at the corner of North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue, the historic McMillan Sand Filtration site. Joining us now to discuss this is Hugh Youngblood. He is the executive director of the Friends of McMillan Park and Advocacy Group. Hugh Youngblood, thank you for joining us.
MR. HUGH YOUNGBLOODThank you for having us, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Matthew Bell. He's a principal with EE & K-Perkins Eastman and the Master Plan Architect in charge of the McMillan Sand Filtration site redevelopment. Matt, thank you for joining us.
MR. MATTHEW BELLNice to be here.
NNAMDIChris Leptak is the vice chair of the McMillan Advisory Group. Chris Leptak, good to have you aboard.
MR. CHRIS LEPTAKSame to be here.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis is still with us. He's the emeritus professor -- he's still in the studio, and alive.
NNAMDIWill be for a long time. Roger's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Hugh, you head up the advocacy group Friends of McMillan Park. Tell us a little about the McMillan Sand Filtration site and its history.
YOUNGBLOODOkay. Thank you, Kojo. McMillan Park, from context, is a 100 plus-acre historic waterworks and recreation facility. It spans the borders of Wards 1 and 5 in the heart of D.C. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it was designed as part of D.C.'s emerald necklace of parks by the Olmstead firm that created grand parks across the U.S. such as Central Park in New York City.
YOUNGBLOODThe endangered portion of McMillan Park that we're discussing today includes 25 acres of green space and 20 acres of underground vaulted caverns. And it's owned by the taxpayers of the district. From the early 1900s until the beginning of World War II, the land was used by the D.C. community at large as a central park for recreation, cultural events and gathering. It was also Washington's first de facto racially integrated park.
YOUNGBLOODAnd at Friends of McMillan Park we support sustainable development that's compatible with the historic character of this landmark site. We agree that something positive needs to happen at McMillan Park.
NNAMDIOn to you, Matt. Before we get into concerns about the development, for those who aren't familiar with the plans, can we hear a little bit about who is developing this site and what's planned at this point? By the way, if you go to our website kojoshow.org you can see an animation there of the project design at our website. Matt.
BELLWell, the McMillan vision -- McMillan partner's project is a mixed-use project on the 25-acre site that will bring the project back into the context of the city. It will provide for a six-acre park at the southern end of the site, all in all 12 acres of green space. It will repurpose some of the historic aspects of the site and reuse those and reintegrate into them. It will introduce new development and it will introduce open space. It will have medical office buildings, retail which the community has wanted and been very clear about, and also residential opportunities.
BELLI should like to just correct one or two things that were just said by Hugh. The Olmstead firm was brought in after the place had been built as a sand filtration site. And one of their tasks was to distinguish areas that could be used as park space and open space. But also on the 25-acre site, their task was to design a walkway around it so people could see into it but not actually access it. Because one of the most important features of the site is that there is a vast field of manhole covers where they used to pour the sand in from on top.
BELLAnd any one time a third of these were exposed, about 2,000 manhole covers. And so it was an industrial site where there was about a third of the manhole covers were open at any one point in time. So Olmstead was brought in to do a landscape edge which is called the Olmstead Walk, which we're putting back as part of the plan. And that Olmstead Walk was designed to permit people to see but not access the center of the 25-acre portion of the site.
BELLSo there was a number of different imperatives that Olmstead had -- that the firm had to satisfy. And our historian Emily (word?) has done a very exhaustive research into what were the circumstances of their participation in the site and what were the design decisions that they made. That said, we're really balancing preservation adaptive reuse with new development and open space. And we find that that's really a successful formula for making a really vital and exciting new neighborhood.
NNAMDIAs I said, people can go to our website kojoshow.org to see an animation of the project design. What's next in the process?
BELLRight now we're in the middle of the review of the project by the zoning commission in D.C. This site is applying for a planned unit development which means that it is a plan unit development that gets reviewed by the zoning commission which is a five-member commission. And they review the plans and the transportation plan and all the things that have gone before it to decide what the zoning should be on the site and what sorts of design issues should be considered.
BELLWe have been -- had conceptual approval for the plan from the historic preservation review board. The site, as you mentioned, is a landmark. So as a landmark it has to go in front of the historic preservation review board for conceptual approval before it goes to zoning. And the preservation review board has voted unanimously in favor of our plan. And to quote them it says, "The plan has been developed to retain important character defining features of the site sufficient to convey its historic characteristics." So that's -- right now we're in zoning. We've been through conceptual with historic preservation.
NNAMDIRoger, you wrote a column back in August about this. What is your view of the latest plan?
LEWISI think the latest plan -- I think the plan -- and I'm talking really about the design as I understand it -- I think is a very competitive plan. I think it does do what Matt has described, which is to arrive at a proper balance between preservation and creation of some new facilities and some new opportunities that I think the neighborhoods in that area and the city have indicated that they want.
LEWISI think I should point out also, this -- I think -- you mentioned about it but just to make clear, this property was acquired from the federal government by the District of Columbia. It is...
LEWISYeah, it's a city property and they acquired it, in fact, for the purposes that I think the plan now...
NNAMDI...for development purposes. They wanted to develop it.
LEWISFor some kind of development. They -- and it's worth nothing that there've been several different proposals over the years since the 1980s as to how to do that.
NNAMDIChris, the McMillan advisory group was formed back in 2006 by the D.C. government to serve as a forum to represent residents and community concerns in this discussion over McMillan. What are the concerns that the group has expressed on this project?
LEPTAKKojo, for the benefit of your listeners I'm just going to give a brief background on who the McMillan Advisor Group is and the mission that we've been tasked with.
LEPTAKSo the McMillan Advisor Group, or the MAG as folks here may be referring to it, has three primary stakeholder groups. It includes representatives from the community, from the development team and from the district. For the community members we have seats that are given based on election from local groups including community associations and civic associations. And then there's an increased number of seats as you get closer to the site.
LEPTAKThe task that we've been given, as you mentioned in the opening, was that we've been asked to work with the developer in the development of the master plan and to meet certain expectations for that development. I think the concerns that the McMillan Advisor Group has repeatedly shared and it's consistent with both mayor Anthony Williams' request for proposals and also with the 2012 door-to-door survey that was conducted, is that there are several areas that remain unaddressed that we continue to work towards.
LEPTAKOne is the planned site development and density of the structures and the height of the buildings. That impact on transportation and traffic for the local communities and the extent to which the historic structures are going to be preserved and reused.
NNAMDIHugh, tell us about what your group Friends of McMillan Park is advocating for at the site and tell us a little bit about the group itself.
YOUNGBLOODOkay. So Friends of McMillan Park is a grassroots community organization that grew from the McMillan Park committee which was founded in 1988 by Tony Norman who had recently graduated from Howard Law School when local senior citizens asked him to get involved in the project. Since then we've been working tirelessly on our mission to preserve, restore and transform historic McMillan Park for the benefit of the public.
YOUNGBLOODToday we've collected over 7,000 signatures on our petition to save the park. Your listeners can visit FriendsofMcMillan.org if they would like to sign or learn more. I got involved in the project in 2011 while serving as an A and C for the Bloomingdale community. So what we're advocating is transparency and vision. We want a transparent, competitive process driven by the community. And that hasn't happened.
YOUNGBLOODA couple steps, we want an international design competition. We want a conservancy to manage the park. We want D.C. leadership to have some vision when it comes to our public spaces. We should be thinking of the High Line instead of NoMa and (word?) instead of Silver Spring. Leaders all over the world in places like New York, Paris, Sidney, Seattle and Istanbul are recognizing the value of their historic spaces and retired industrial facilities. And they're finding ways to weave them into the fabric of modern life.
YOUNGBLOODD.C.'s an international city in the capitol of the U.S. which would be leaders in sustainable adaptive reuse, although we're unfortunately lagging behind. But our organization's vision is for a McMillan Park as a grand world class destination public space with community and economic activities integrated into the restored underground caverns. Our alternative plan for the park is based on extensive community outreach and data collection, as Chris mentioned our 2012 survey.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking about the development of the McMillan Sand Filtration site and inviting your calls at that number, 800-433-8850. What do you think of the latest plans? Do you think community and public opinion is given enough weight in this development, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com. Matt, as we said, the zoning commission will meet again on September 29 to discuss the plan. What concerns did the commission have when it last reviewed the plans and how have those concerns been addressed?
BELLWell, in terms of just to sort of add a P.S. to something Hugh said, we've had over 200 community meetings for this project. And the plan has been -- as with any master plan when it's in the community process, things change. We listen to the community. We make changes. We try to address concerns and clarify. So we have had a transparent process, has included substantial community outreach with community workshops and one-on-one meetings and meetings with groups like the MAG.
BELLAnd as Roger said, you know, it's common that in a master plan like this that is large, not everybody gets everything that they want. But certainly we have addressed the concerns for the people, see ideas that they've had and concerns that they've had in the plan. So for example, one thing that has happened is that the park space, which has been something that the community has been clear about, that they wanted more park space. So we have certainly increased the size of the park.
BELLWe're working with one of the nation's best landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz to do the landscape architecture for the park, a world class landscape architecture firm who's also designing the Flight 93 memorial. And the community also wanted more community retail. So we have listened and heard and addressed those and incorporated them into the plan.
BELLThe zoning commission on September 29 will take up issues that have been raised about clarifications, about some of the things Chris raised about the height and density and traffic concerns.
NNAMDINext you, Chris and Matt -- I mean, Chris and Hugh, what are your concerns in the upcoming zoning commission hearing. First you, Hugh.
YOUNGBLOODWell, at the zoning commission we've been working hard to -- on our case to get the zoning commission to deny the application to rezone the park for high rise development. We want something consistent with the comprehensive plan for D.C. And so that's our work at the zoning commission.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Sam who says, "Hopefully someone corrects Roger Lewis's view that any and all oppositions of this plan means they want all park. It's more complex." Do you want all park?
YOUNGBLOODWe would love as much park as possible but we are for sustainable adaptive reuse that is compatible with this landmark.
NNAMDIAll park, Chris?
LEPTAKPersonally? No, that's not my view. And I would say that would also be consistent with the surveys and the multiple, multiple meetings that we've had over almost a ten-year period at this point. But...
NNAMDII'm glad you said multiple, multiple meetings because when you have multiple, multiple meetings, the perception of those people who are listening to this broadcast is that there has been a great deal of community input into this process. Yet I keep hearing from people who oppose this plan that either the community input has not A. been sufficient or B. widespread enough. Is that correct, Hugh?
YOUNGBLOODCommunity input has been extensive, however on the listening side of that input we have certainly, as Friends of McMillan Park, been collecting data and publishing the data, the results from those processes. However, when we see information go into the development team's black box process, nothing seems to change, regardless of what the community input is.
LEPTAKWell, I agree with you, there's a difference between having a community meeting where it's a show and tell where they revealed the latest plan that changes versus actually listening and giving the opportunity during the time that's been allotted for the community to weigh in. Many times the meetings that are held, only the last few minutes actually give an opportunity for the community to speak.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis, what has been your experience with quote unquote "community input?"
LEWISWell, I haven't been involved at all.
NNAMDINot in this particular project but I mean in general.
LEWISOh no. I mean, I think that the point -- meetings that are meaningful with the community are, in fact, work sessions. I mean, they're not one-way monologues. So I certainly have been a participant in many of these things and usually there is some introductory presentation made by the applicant, the proposer, the development team. And then after that, if it's done right, there is more than enough exchange if it's been properly managed. There's no question that if you don't run these meetings in a way that encourages dialogue, then they are meetings that are not particularly productive.
BELLWell, I was just going to say, I think we can point to some very specific examples where particular issues have been identified as community concerns. And this project has responded to them. The park size has increased. The project, as it has evolved from 2009, has included a very robust and repurposing plan for the historic preservation elements. In previous versions that I was not involved with there was scant preservation.
BELLWe're including community-oriented retail which has been a big concern, and working hard to get a grocery store. We're including affordable housing, which has been a concern of the community. And the income levels of the people eligible for the housing, we've actually lowered that so that there will be more people eligible for the housing at McMillan. We've included a community center that will be open to the community at large. It'll be integrated into the park space.
BELLAnd we have lowered the heights of buildings. The buildings are not all high rises across the site as has been characterized. The buildings rise up to the northwest corner because across the street is the Washington Hospital Center where there are some taller buildings. And our medical office buildings step up to the northwest corner so that they don't make an impact on the townhouse neighborhoods to the east and to the south but they actually -- the height is concentrated in places where there already are tall buildings.
NNAMDIHow do you respond to this email we got from right-up-your-ally? "Please note, half of what vision McMillan partners called planned green space at McMillan are tree boxes, front yards?"
BELLI think that's inaccurate.
NNAMDIWe got another tweet from Eduardo, Hugh, who said, "Plenty of people view anything as better than the status quo. Friends of McMillan forgets that.
YOUNGBLOODOkay. Yes, there -- we all agree on the fact that we need to take down the fence and restore community access to this site. What we disagree on is what comes next. I mean, we would love to send in dogs and families and picnics and these guys want to send in bulldozers.
NNAMDIWell, in all fairness, those bulldozers will not be permanently occupying the spot in the same way that dogs and families and picnics would. Those bulldozers would be building something. But Chris, there's also a historic preservation question here. "Given that the site is a historic landmark, where does that stand?"
LEPTAKSo, Kojo, you previously asked what we were hoping to hear from the zoning commission when they make their final arbitration at the end of the month.
LEPTAKSo I would say that there are two things that the MAG is looking for. Just to correct something that Matt said a moment ago, certainly as part of these iterations that have gone on and as the plan has changed, it was -- we were very fortunate that in the past one of the revisions that had been raised by members in our neighborhood, the folks that live along North Capitol, is that the buildings that face North Capitol will be of a lower scale and set back off of the street so that their views and light over the course of the day wouldn't be seriously affected.
LEPTAKThe plan in the early iterations addressed that need and we were very appreciative. Unfortunately the current plan, as the park got bigger and things got pushed north and buildings got a larger footprint and also larger in height is that those previous considerations have now been basically reversed so that the buildings along North Capitol are taller, they're closer to the street than they were previously.
LEPTAKThe other thing that we would hope from the zoning commission is that as part of any plan unit developments, listeners need to be aware that there's something called a Community Benefits Agreement whereby as a development takes place, that the community based on changes in their neighborhood and structure are afforded the opportunity to get benefits either in changes to the plan or in terms of amenities that would help the neighboring community and the families.
LEPTAKAs part of that process, so far it hasn't gone, at least to my mind, accordingly as best as it could've been. The McMillan Advisory Group, over the course of the spring, had, I think, in excess of 12 meetings, whereby we met with community members, gave them opportunities to say what they liked and didn't like about the plan, what they would like to see in terms of community benefits. The McMillan Advisory Group submitted a 35-page document to zoning of our concerns and how we thought we could mitigate and address them so that we could move forward.
LEPTAKUnfortunately, the majority of those concerns have not been raised and what was submitted by both our ANC Commission and also the development team, in terms of their version of the Community Benefits Agreement. Since the 2007 letter of commitment, when Vision McMillan Partners was chosen to be the main developer for the site, part of the stipulations for that commitment was that they would work with the MAG in the creation of the Community Benefits Agreement. The development team, unfortunately, chose not to do that and to work solely and negotiate exclusively with the local ANC.
NNAMDIOnto Carol, in Washington, D.C. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLYes. I have question about the medical office buildings along the north, that are planned for the north space.
CAROLI think when they were first proposed in 2009, the rationale was that they needed that profit center in order to attract petitioned financing for the project. Now, I think financing is easier. The buildings have gone from a proposed 300,000 square feet to a million square feet. And they're just way, way, way out of scale for what is actually…
CAROLBut I -- I'm sorry?
NNAMDIAre you reading?
CAROLNo. I'm not reading.
NNAMDIWell, please finish your sentence.
CAROLI don't finish sentences. But -- no, sorry. The other thing is that I don't think either of the hospitals had asked -- had taken the initiative to ask for those buildings to be built there. And each of them, Children's and Washington Hospital Center have got parking lots that they could develop their own office buildings on if they felt that strongly about it. I think that consideration should be given, if financially feasible, to getting rid of the office buildings and trying to put nice areas of workforce and affordable housing. Now…
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have…
CAROLOkay. Thank you.
NNAMDI…Matt respond. Matt?
BELLOne of the benefits of having the medical office buildings where they've been located is it brings the project into a very robust mixed-use vitality. And this is rare, I think. In a lot of projects you see there's -- oh, these are strictly residential and retail or commercial and retail.
BELLWhat's really great about this plan is that with the office buildings there and the people who will come there during the day and the residential component of the other part of the plan, who will be there presumably on weekends and at night and things like that, and the retail that we're proposing for the north service court, what we will get is a very robust mix of users and people in that area.
BELLSo instead of a place that's strictly residential, that during the day is pretty empty or not very highly used, we will get really great activity in this area. It'll help to support the neighborhood retail, which many, many people in that neighborhood have been very clear about wanting, and it will provide for amenities to the health care community as well. So we feel like that's a very significant addition to the plans.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back you will all get a chance to weigh in on the conversation. We're talking about the development proposed for the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the latest plans? You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can see an animation of the project design. That's at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the development proposed for the McMillan Sand Filtration Site with Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. Hugh Youngblood is the executive director of the Friends of McMillan Park, an advocacy group. Matthew Bell is a principal with EE & K-Perkins Eastman and the master plan architect in charge of the site.
NNAMDIAnd Chris Leptak is the vice chair of the McMillan Advisory Group. We were talking about the difficulty or the process by which one reaches agreement. Chris, the McMillan Advisory Group is charged with representing the groups that are members. That includes a number of civic groups, as well as individuals. Is getting everyone to agree realistic?
LEPTAKWell, I think it's not just to getting members of the community to agree, but also getting members of the development team to agree. As you can imagine, with a project this complex that are going to affect people's daily lives, there's certainly strong opinions about lots of matters. So one of the things that we've done, I think, effectively -- and obviously it's still a work in progress -- is to try to align opinions as best we can and to identify what floats to the top that's of most importance.
LEPTAKAnd certainly the issues that I raised previously about the effect of transportation and traffic for the proposed development and the increase in the number of vehicles traveling along the major corridors, the concern about the height and the buildings and the density of the proposed development. And then finally how those -- the historic preservation of the structures and how that's going to come into play.
NNAMDIWell, having lived in that neighborhood many years ago, on T Street, just off of 4th Street Northwest, I know that there used to be a supermarket, a Safeway, at the corner of 3rd and Rhode Island. It's disappeared. To what extent is there agreement on the need for retail there? To what extent is there agreement on the need, especially given the gentrification that we're seeing in the city, for affordable housing there?
LEPTAKWell, I think both of those issues are of strong importance to the folks that live neighboring to the site. At present we don't have the opportunity to walk to pretty much anything unless you're a pretty avid walker. And so it would certainly be nice to be able to walk across the street to grab a meal or to do grocery shopping. I think what we're challenged with is what are we giving up in order to be able to walk to that grocery store? As Matt mentioned previously, they determined that there would be benefit to having the commercial space be occupied by health care associated groups.
LEPTAKThe challenge of that is, as a physician, we know that you see patients every 10 minutes. The site is more than a mile from the nearest Metro. So that number of patient visits are basically going to be people driving to the site. And so you're going to have a large increase in traffic number, just based on the intended use for the structures. So although there may be benefit to tying in medical office space with the hospitals to the north, it also has its downsides. And pretty significant ones.
LEPTAKIf these were commercial spaces that were not health care associated, for which employees go, there is no need for folks to visit throughout the day, you certainly have a much reduction in the number of folks that would need to visit the site.
BELLWell, Chris makes a good point about making neighborhoods walkable. And that's really been one of the most foundational, important principles that we've tried to embrace in making this plan, which is to try to connect McMillan back to the city. To make it something whereby the residents can easily walk to retail and walk to grocery stores and walk to open spaces and enjoy all the benefits of the urban design plan. And our plan does that.
BELLIt is also part of the planned unit development process. You have to submit a transportation plan that explains how -- what are the impacts of what you're development is going to be on the community and how you're going to work with the city to deal with those impacts. And we've worked very hard with DDOT. And they are the ones who make the recommendation to the zoning commission about whether or not our transportation plan is something that they can work with.
BELLAnd the most recent notification we've got from DDOT says that they agree to all elements included in our plan. So, you know, those will include a variety of measures, from shuttles, to bike stations, to various other things. So you have to really work hard to demonstrate that you can mitigate the transportation impacts. And we've done that.
NNAMDIHugh, what is it about this process that has been an issue for Friends of McMillan Park?
YOUNGBLOODWell, great question, Kojo. And most of our issues are process-oriented and -- or high level. We see the current process as dated, disingenuous, deceptive and wasteful.
NNAMDIIn other words, you're not in favor of it.
YOUNGBLOODCorrect. Well, the process used thus far on this project is a perfect example of the old-guard way of doing business in D.C.
NNAMDIThat would be the new-guard way?
YOUNGBLOODWell, we see this as a sweetheart real estate deal with a strong odor of corruption. The lack of competition is the biggest issue there. And so this land reserved…
NNAMDIAllow me to raise that issue for a second because we do have a few minutes left. Roger, for many big projects in the city, involving existing or historic sites, there have been public competitions with competing development ideas. Thinking of next to where I live now, Walter Reed, up on Georgia Avenue. How and why is this site different?
LEWISWell, I think that site isn't different. I mean, I think this site is -- I think it's a unique site in many ways, particularly because of the structures that are there. And it's a very prime location. I mean, I think that everybody recognizes that it is a strategically located site. I don't think -- I mean, every -- from my position as an architect, it seems to me that it is -- it poses the same set of issues that many sites propose, which is that there are some historic assets that need to be dealt with.
LEWISThere are serious neighborhood concerns that need to be addressed. But there are also considerations that transcend the immediate site and even one can say are citywide. So I -- my only feeling is -- and this is a very personal opinion -- is that this is a site in which having public park, open space, is an appropriate item on the menu. I just don't think the whole 25 acres need to be a park.
LEWISAnd I do think some amount of development on this site is appropriate. And I think generally -- particularly the deployment and plan, if you will, where -- how it's been deployed and planned makes sense to me still.
NNAMDIBut is public competition always a good idea?
LEWISNot necessarily. I mean I think -- there has been some competition. Remember, the city -- I would take issue with the notion that there's only one way to do this. I think that the process that has been used is not the only way it could have been done. But I think that they -- the city, who owns that property, isn't necessarily obligated or necessarily has to hold an international design competition.
LEWISAnd I say that as someone who's run a lot of design competitions, national and international. I mean, I think -- they are also fraught with risks, running competitions. We won't -- we'll do that on another show.
NNAMDIHugh, your organization seem seems to feel that the city weighted this too heavily in favor of EE & K-Perkins Eastman. You say there was a PR campaign, organized by the development team, that your organization took issue with. Why?
YOUNGBLOODYes. Well, first on the competitive issue, I mean, we would like the same process that you see at -- that you saw at Walter Reed, St. Elizabeths and the Franklin School. But to speak to the PR campaign…
NNAMDIWell, let me ask Matt about that process for a second, the process of public competition. Roger says it's sometimes fraught with -- well, missteps, if you will.
BELLI have no reason to doubt Roger Lewis' wisdom on that. But we're the architects, not the developers. And so there are lots of different ways that public projects are awarded. And that, you know, we've been in all sorts of different contexts, been part of projects. We were brought in as master plan architect several years after the project had been awarded to Vision McMillan Partners.
NNAMDIOkay. Back to you, Hugh, and the aspect of the PR campaign that was organized by the development team.
YOUNGBLOODWell, yeah, this was really disappointing and frustrating. So the mayor's office, in concert with the development team, hired a PR firm from Baltimore to discredit and neutralize the community opposition. This…
NNAMDIWell, I'm sure they would say that their purpose for hiring the team was to tell the community exactly what was planned, as opposed to discrediting the opposition.
YOUNGBLOODWell, I'm reading in quotes from their PR strategic plan.
NNAMDIOh, good. Then read on.
YOUNGBLOODYeah, so -- well, I'm just quoting the discredit and neutralize piece. Those were their objectives of the campaign. And these are revealed as -- from documents we obtained via FOIA requests. And they paint a very disturbing and disgusting picture of D.C. government working with its development consultant to try and hurt the community and discredit the community. Do we really want to live in a city where the government funds counter-campaigns against the best efforts of community volunteers?
YOUNGBLOODWe're very disappointed in the Gray administration. This kind of thing happens all the time in China, but it's terrible to see it happening here. What would future mayors do to make sure this kind of complicity between the District and private developers doesn't happen again? I mean…
NNAMDIChris, your turn. Has the development team adequately addressed the concerns raised by the community?
LEPTAKI would say no, that there still remain the outstanding issues of traffic, traffic mitigation, the building height and density and then also specifics about how and when and to what extent the structures are going to be preserved. As a comment to Matt's comment previously on traffic and transportation. It's interesting that the study that they conducted last spring started with the premise that if McMillan were not developed would the traffic get any worse?
LEPTAKAnd if you put that in the context of a half or dozen or so large developments that are coming online in the next couple of years, including the Soldier's Home, the cloverleaf expansion of both the Hospital Centers and Howard Hospital, then ultimately their own studies show that, yes, there is in fact increased traffic and it will be worse, but it won't be any worse because we're doing McMillan. I don't think that's fair.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. Matt, you point out that this may be the nature of any large-scale project. What's been your experience?
BELLWell, just to sort of touch on what Chris is talking about. One of the things that you have to do…
NNAMDIYou only have about a minute.
BELLOkay. One of the things you have to do with transportation is you have to look at all the surrounding projects. So our team has done that and DDOT has now issued something -- a memo -- saying their confident that our plan -- they are supportive of our plan. The nature of these projects is that the input comes from a lot of different places. We had a very robust dialogue with the Historic Preservation Review Board.
BELLWe've had a robust dialogue with members of the community. We've had a robust dialogue with the MAG and with the ANCs, with the -- with all sorts of, you know, community members, and trying to understand their needs. And like I said, this project is a very, very good balance -- and it's a creative balance -- of development, open space and preservation. And it's complex…
BELL…but it'll bring all those things into a really terrific synthesis.
NNAMDIFinally, Roger, at what point do we stop having a robust discussion and start deciding?
LEWISWell, I think legally, I think, when the zoning commission makes the PUD finding or judgment. That will end the discussion presumably. I mean there can be litigation after that. I -- all of these projects -- all such projects are controversial. I always tell my students if you put three architects in a room you get five opinions. If you put -- if you bring all of these interests together -- and I think they're all legitimate interests.
LEWISI mean, everything we're hearing, these are all genuine concerns. My perception is that this team has done a reasonably diligent -- expended a diligent effort trying to reconcile and come up with a plan that makes sense, admittedly from the perspective of the development interests.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Roger Lewis is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. Hugh Youngblood is the executive director of the Friends of McMillan Park. Matthew Bell is a principal with EE & K-Perkins Eastman and the master plan architect in charge of the site redevelopment.
NNAMDIAnd Chris Leptak is the vice chair of the McMillan Advisory Group. Gentlemen, I say this in all sincerity, good luck to you all. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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