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Groundbreaking of McMillan Park overshadowed by lawsuit

Mayor Muriel Bowser, city and neighborhood leaders toss sand at the McMillan Reservoir signifying the start to work on a multi-use site still on hold due to a pending lawsuit. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

WASHINGTON — Those who live near the McMillan Reservoir on North Capitol Street in Northeast D.C. are excited the site is finally being transformed, but a pending lawsuit over bidding for the job is halting the process.

Counting down with local leaders and Advisory Neighborhood Commission members who worked on the project, Mayor Muriel Bowser dug her shovel into a pile of sand — pulled from the original sand filtration silos that still tower over the property — and threw it in the air. But any real work on what is slated to become McMillan Park is on hold because of a pending suit involving the site.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, McMillan Reservoir has sat dormant for decades on 25-acres at the corner of North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NE. The Army Corps of Engineers sold the land to the city in the mid-1980s.

“To finally activate this site, it’s going to be amazing for not only the District of Columbia at large, but for the neighbors who’ve only been able to look through a fence at something that has never really helped beyond the times when it served as the city’s water filtration site,” said Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, D-Ward.

On its website, Friends of McMillan Park explains the efforts it has made to bring attention to the bidding “irregularity” for the site and cites a letter D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson sent to District Council Chair Phil Mendelson with her concerns.

“After examining records from the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Patterson found that VMP won the job of “master project planner,” but subsequently was designated, without competition, as the project’s developer and owner, including responsibility for financing and vertical construction. Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP) have repeatedly highlighted this procurement irregularity to the D.C. Council and other District Government agencies in written and oral testimony provided during public hearings. Ms. Patterson effectively agreed with FOMP and concluded that “a new competitive process” should be undertaken.”

Despite the lawsuit blocking any immediate construction on the site, the mayor believes the plans will go forward.

“We feel very solid. We have gotten very positive feedback from the courts on our position,” Bowser said.

Resident Robin Diener, who is the president of Friends of the M.L.K. Library, said she would have preferred the city had not skipped the bidding process, which is at the heart of the suit, which she believes would have afforded neighbors a more interesting design.

“Our view is simply, follow the law. Do it right. We would have had a competitive process. And I think it would have been much more creative … it just would be more exciting for people,” she said.

McMillan Park will feature 12-acres of green space, a public park, community center, grocery store and affordable housing units. Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner said there will be considerable effort to preserve historic structures on the site.

The site is marked by underground filtration “cells,” sand-cleansing towers, the remnants of a fountain and other structures once used to operate the water treatment plant, which cleaned the city’s water from 1905 to 1986.

Questions also remain over how anyone outside the neighborhood would reach the park, which sits along busy North Capitol Street, far from any Metro stations. It’s something McDuffie, who lives nearby, said will be addressed.

“Transportation is a concern obviously. But we’re going to work through that. We’re going to figure out ways to get people in and out of this area. We’re not going to make it worse for neighbors. The net benefits that accrue from this project are huge,” McDuffie said.

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