The Empire Strikes Back

Eyes on McMillan

In mid-February, Mayor Muriel Bowser dispatched a representative to a meeting of the McMillan Advisory Group (MAG), a community group opposed to elements of plans for a mixed-use project at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site. A visit by anyone from the mayor's office to a neighborhood meeting about McMillan is extremely rare.

The District has partnered with Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), a partnership of EYA LLC, Trammell Crow Company and Jair Lynch Development Partners, on the project which promises a 30-year return of $513 million and the creation of 1,584 permanent jobs, at least a third of which are to be set aside for DC residents. To date, the District has paid more than $6 million in pre-development costs to VMP.

Relations between VMP and MAG might be characterized as frigid at best, but things did not start out this way. A 2007 Letter of Commitment, also signed by the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED), envisioned a "consensus-based" project that "balances the equities of economics with public benefit, preservation and community amenities." VMP says it has achieved that consensus. The project is "the culmination of years of extraordinary engagement between the District, development team and community," its website states.

Indeed, after 200 community meetings, VMP has cleared all but a few regulatory hurdles and awaits approval of a subdivision plan and demolition permit from the Mayor's Agent for Historic Preservation.

However, the consensus VMP says it has warrants a closer look. MAG, on its website, now derides the VMP plan as "a combination of large commercial buildings and townhouses which would destroy about 90 percent of the site’s historic structures and result in a 'Tyson’s Corner style mixed-use development.'" Another community group, Friends of McMillan, has staved off plans for the site for 25 years, including proposals for a Kmart and a church. They have attended public meetings, scrutinized public records, demonstrated in the name of open space, historic preservation and creative design, and generally become a thorn in the side of VMP and the DC political establishment.

The Empire Strikes Back

In 2013, VMP hired Baltimore-based Fontaine & Company to develop a strategy to deal with the project's opponents. The "VMP Grassroots Plan" is a 13-page outline on how to "provide continuous political cover to local elected officials" using a "toolkit" to "facilitate communication with the media and decision-makers." The "Fontaine team will execute all work on behalf of the coalition," the plan states, to create "the overall impression of local community support" through house parties, meetings with DC Council members and responses to online blogs.

Fontaine then recruited a group of community members known as Neighbors of McMillan (NOM). This group embraced the project as a "new development that will bring both parks and open space to our community, but also the convenience of new, local retail and restaurants."

The purpose of NOM, according to Fontaine's own document, is to "neutralize opposition," "leverage the support of third-party validators," and "create a community coalition, empowered with the tools to advocate on behalf of VMP plans and to organize local support."

In a separate document, "McMillan Grassroots Plan," Fontaine lays out a strategy to "maximize local support while effectively discrediting opposition." It provides talking points labeled "US" and "THEM" designed to portray opponents of the project as "agents largely from outside the immediate/impacted community."

To further garner support for VMP's campaign message, "Create McMillan Park," Fontaine's grassroots plan calls for "paid communication and outreach" via phone, mail and Facebook and Google advertising, as well as Op-Eds and unpaid publicity in local news outlets.

Fontaine and VMP both referred requests for comment to the Mayor who did not respond to inquiries by press time for this story.

The City Foots the Bill

VMP has more than 30 contractors, including architects, engineers, consultants, multimedia companies and the law firm Holland & Knight to manage the pre-development phase of the project, city records show. Under an agreement with no specified duration, VMP invoices the District for contractor costs up to $1.34 million per year.

A DC developer who does both public and private projects, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak candidly, said, "I've never seen DMPED pay for pre-development costs."

An invoice dated Dec. 23, 2013, from one of VMP's partners to the deputy mayor for planning and economic development requests $538,200. The invoice shows that Fontaine billed $28,000 for that period. However, a Feb. 3, 2014 invoice shows VMP crediting the Fontaine payment back to the District with no explanation. (Invoices show VMP billed the District more than $236,000 for various other outreach services from FY2010 to FY2014.)

Fontaine continued its efforts on behalf of VMP. In a Dec. 12, 2013 email to the firm's president, Jamie Fontaine-Gansell, former DMPED Project Manager Shiv Newaldess refers to "misconceptions" he attributes to project opponents and "biased angles" he says local reporters had approached him with. He explains the importance of not ignoring "myths" and "misconceptions," and says, "The idea of hiring your company, Jamie, was always meant to change the dynamics a bit. Doing more of the same and ignoring blatant misrepresentations doesn't do this."

In her reply, Fontaine-Gansell assures him that, "One of our primary strategies is to discredit the opposition and create a sense of mistrust with regard to their motives. We need to stand up, reclaim this conversation and get the truth out there -- so the community does not lose out on this tremendous opportunity."

An End to Acrimony?

The fractious debate over McMillan has deterred some qualified parties from engaging on the subject of how the site should be developed. Rebecca Miller, president of the DC Preservation League, which has included McMillan on its list of most endangered sites, said, "There's so much dispute between the Friends of McMillan and the developer, it's been a little hard to interject in an appropriate manner. We're looking for a little bit of consensus…Acrimony makes it difficult to get involved when there is misinformation and accusations. Perhaps it's something for a ballot initiative."

Local historian Hayden Wetzel said he finds "bothersome" what he describes as a "maximalist" position taken by the project's opponents on neighborhood listservs. "It's been pulled apart to the point that it's an us-versus-them issue and it's too bad," he said.

But in Bowser, Miller said she sees some hope that a new set of eyes on McMillan could lead to a more collaborative dialogue between community factions, VMP and city leaders: "We have a new administration and that presents an opportunity to take a fresh look and see what's in the best interests of the District."

This is the second of the Eyes on McMillan series that will examine how the District is making decisions on the best use of its land and resources. This article will published in the March Hill Rag.

Jeffrey Anderson is a veteran, DC-based journalist. Reach him at byjeffreyanderson@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @jeffreyanders19


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