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A new life for D.C.'s abandoned water treatment facility

Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons license

Recently, the Washington, D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Developmentissued an order to demolish all but two of the 20 underground cisterns at McMillan Park, an abandoned 25-acre sand-based water filtration site shut down almost 30 years ago. The facility, located just two miles north of the Capitol, was developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1902 and 1905 to filter reservoir water. Now, developers are looking to create a vibrant mixed-use space. Plans include subdividing the site into seven parcels and developing a public park, a museum explaining the history of the site, retail, multifamily and single-family housing, and healthcare facilities, as well as the adaptive reuse of above-ground features, including all four regulator houses.

The Abandoned Silos at DC's McMillan Park | UNUSUAL SPACES No. 3 from PBS Digital Studios on Vimeo.

The 25-acre parcel owned by the city was once part of the 92-acre McMillan Reservoir and Filtration Plant complex and is a historic landmark, designated by the city in 1991 and the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. In the early 20th century, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., developed plans to beautify the site, improving park grounds adjacent to the reservoir that were used for leisure activities. One of the city’s first racially integrated parks, the space was closed to the public during World War II to protect the city’s water supply and operation of the plant ended in 1986 when the Corps offered the parcel to the city for $1 under the condition that the land would remain as a park or for market value ($9.3 million) if the the land was to be developed. The city chose the latter option and after nearly a decade of debate, those development plans are finally being realized by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), which won a contract in 2006 to propose plans for the space.

Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons license
Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons license

Not all D.C. residents are happy about the newest developments. A grassroots campaign called "Save McMillan Park" has been crowdfunding for the preservation of the space, named by the D.C. Preservation League as one of the city’s most endangered historic places in 2005 and 2006. One of the most frequently cited concerns by protesting groups about the concept plans is the lack of open space at the former park and the demolition of the historic underground cisterns, rather than the adaptive reuse of them.

Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons license

The Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) found that the proposed demolition is not consistent with the purposes of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act, which allows the Mayor's Agent to grant for a permit to destroy protected historic resources if doing so is considered a necessity in the public interest. HPRB later stated in a report that the revised concept designs are compatible with the historic character of McMillan.

Ted Eytan/Flickr Creative Commons license

"This is an important and difficult site to develop for many reasons," J. Peter Byrne, the Mayor’s Agent hearing officer, wrote in a statement on McMillan on April 6. It is one of the largest parcels of undeveloped land in D.C., surrounded on two sides by beautiful rowhouse neighborhoods, and on another side by the city’s largest collection of hospitals. "It is understandable that diverse parties argue that it be dedicated as needed public open space, an economic development opportunity, or as urban infill that meets significant community needs for housing and retail," Byrne wrote in the report. "At the same time, it contains impressive remnants of engineering technology and dignified public works from more than one hundred years ago, fully deserving protection of the Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act. Striking a workable balance has been difficult and contentious."

Byrne's statement argues that VMP's proposal does more than strike a workable balance—it provides more affordable housing that what would be required under generally applicable zoning laws, preserves the above-ground historic features, includes public park space, and meets additional city goals. The most controversial aspect of the plan is the two large healthcare office buildings, because of their size and the number of workers they would bring to the site. VMP has responded to that concern by arguing that the offices are strategically located to create a healthcare district near the existing hospitals, will help fund the affordable housing and parks, and support the retail.

A public hearing will be held on May 18th to address VMP's claim that the proposed demolition of 18 cells is necessary to construct the project.

Update: Friends of McMillan Park, a group trying to preserve the historic space, is planning an appeal of the Mayor's Agent decision approving the requested demolition permit. "Perhaps it goes without saying that we think that granting permission to demolish essentially all the underground caverns is not only excessive for this particular site, but it does not seem to show much respect for the site’s Historic Landmark status and such decisions do not bode well, I think, for historic sites in general if permission is granted in such a way to demolish 80–90 percent of such a site," Friends of McMillan Park treasurer Kirby Vining wrote in an email to ARCHITECT. "There’s certainly got to be a grey area, but what would historic landmarks in our country look like if 80–90 percent of them were demolished?"

Caroline Massie is an assistant editor of business, products, and technology at ARCHITECT (a sister publication to Public Works). Follow her on Twitter at  @caroline_massie.

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About the Author

Caroline Massie Caroline Massie

Caroline Massie is an assistant editor of business, products, and technology at ARCHITECT and Architectural Lighting. She received a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and English from the University of Virginia. Her work has also appeared in The Cavalier Daily, Catalyst, Flavor, The Piedmont Virginian, and Old Town Crier. Follow her on Twitter at @caroline_massie.

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