Housing Complex

McMillan Plan Heads to Historic Preservation Review With Most Neighborhood Groups Opposed

The layout.

If it were not clear before, let the current state of discussion around planning for the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant leave no doubt that this site is the biggest development headache in the entire city (which, considering the competition, is saying something).

At the moment, there is a master plan for the 25-acre site, which the Historic Preservation Review Board will take up today—though I'll be shocked if they finish it without overflowing to another session. After re-starting the two-decade-old planning process in 2010, and another round of "salons" to introduce their concept to the surrounding neighborhoods, developers Jair Lynch and EYA have racked up a chorus of qualified "no"s: The Pleasant Plains Civic Association and neighboring Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B voted unanimously to oppose it as too dense for the historic nature of the site. The Bloomingdale Civic Association was overwhelmingly against it, passing a four-page resolution outlining objections and recommendations. The Committee of 100 also weighed in on the side of less development, along with Councilmember Phil Mendelson

In a somewhat surprising move, however, the ANC that actually includes McMillan decided to be constructive: They decided on Tuesday to support the plan, with a short list of issues on which they'll continue to work with the developers to improve.* The vote was almost evenly split, with three white, relatively new commissioners leading the charge for something different (not that race or length of service is a real dividing line here, since people of all types fall on both sides, but the pro-development camp in this case includes more longer-term commissioners, and had been backed by ex-Councilmember Harry Thomas). Listed concerns include the amount of open space on the site, stormwater and traffic management, and the fine points of a new recreation center.

If data collected by another neighborhood advisory group set up to negotiate a community benefits agreement is any indication, the park issue is an important one for folks living around the site. Preliminary results from 455 surveys administered door-to-door at the homes surrounding McMillan found that 85 percent want at least half the site preserved as open space. The current proposal actually comes close to that, but it's difficult to see, since it's spread across one large park and a few smaller areas.

The problem here is that, other than developers and bloggers—and let's face it, who naturally trusts either?—few people are out there making the case that the site needs a certain number of housing units in order to attract the kind of retail and new transportation options that people always ask for. Meanwhile, the folks who want open space also want shorter buildings, when taller ones would allow for more of everything.

It's also true, however, that the plan thus far isn't especially charismatic in how it re-uses the site. Without detailed architectural renderings, the development program appears conventional. The 4.6-acre park in the center will be nice enough, retaining a row of the old silos for a flavor of what used to be there, but it's easy to focus instead on the 18 out of 20 underground cells that will be destroyed. Perhaps that's practical, at a time when public funding for non-market goods is hard to come by. It's just not a powerful enough vision to win over the skeptics, who tend to drive these community processes, and who argue that the site is so special it needs something unlike anything else in D.C. To some extent, they also say no as a negotiating position, thinking that to say "yes, but" loses them all pull down the line.

"The minute you vote to support it, you lose any leverage that you have," said Tony Norman, an ANC 1B commissioner and a leader of the opposition. "We're simply saying, 'we haven't gotten to the promised land yet, but maybe we can.'"

As for the Historic Preservation Office itself, which typically drives the opinion of the Board: The staff report is very understanding of the developer's challenges, and just asks for a greater degree of attention to some of the site's historic contours, as well as a greater setback from North Capitol Street. So perhaps they'll sign off on the plan on after all.

UPDATE, May 26: There is some disagreement over what, exactly, the Commission voted to do, since there was no written resolution at the time of the vote. The final resolution says that the Commission voted "to indicate its appreciation for and general support of ongoing efforts by the District, VMP and the ANC 5C Community to reach consensus for development at the site," but advocates for revisions, including the elimination of one row of townhouses. Here's the full thing:
[scribd id=94883281 key=key-gh2acffpebgaqv2k768 mode=list]

  • xmal

    Can any deal be struck with the Corps of Engineers to open up the area immediately surrounding the reservoir (the large block immediately to the west of the former sand filtration plant)? In addition to your suggestion for taller buildings that could be another way toward compromise.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    I believe that block to the west is the current rapid sand filter (as opposed to the old McMillan slow sand filter). Since it's currently filtering our drinking water, I don't think they'll be too keen on developing it or allowing public access to it.

  • puzzled

    is there any way the timing of the project could be explicitly tied to development of the proposed east-west street car? Since a lot of the objection seems to be about traffic, and that this is density away from rail transit, and there seems to be a chicken/egg problem here.

  • will

    I am reminded of the battle over El Toro naval air station in Orange County. It had been an air base since WWII, and via BRAC, the navy didn't need it anymore. It had $2 Billion worth of airport infrastructure, runways, fuel tanks, etc. The area of south Orange County was (and is) capacity constrained at John Wayne airport, and the next closest airports are San Diego and L.A. One proposal was to upgrade El Toro to be a regional airport, which would have also lightened some of the regional freeway impacts of congestion on the way to John Wayne and LAX.

    But the decision on what to do with the base was given to only immediately adjacent towns, similar to our own Walter Reed local redevelopment authority. The locals voted against the airport, and now the 4,500 acre base is being converted into tract homes and a giant park.

    I don't think there is any doubt that the region would have been better served by an airport, while certainly for quality of life, the locals who controlled the vote are better off without it, at least from a quality of life standpoint.

    Similar deal here. Regionally, McMillan development makes sense, but there are more downsides to the adjacent locals compared to a park, so they are almost universally opposed. It's ultimately up to the administration to weigh the issue, and make a decision they can stand behind.

  • Anon X

    why cant southern most half of the space be set aside as a contiguous park and then the anti-development crew just compromise on the northern most half and allow for high density, taller, development? Seems reasonable.

    There really needs to be a third way in this dispute... I think most everyone in the neighborhood disagrees with the developers but is also somewhat ambivalent about extremely limited development.

  • er

    development would be so simple were it not for pesky humans and their "quality of life" desires.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    fwiw, it would be stupid to have two regional airports within 15 miles of each other (Orange County, California). One or the other maybe. Junking one for the other would have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

    But you could still argue that the process for re-using the El Toro site does involve more stakeholders than the McMillan site.

    And yes, the Walter Reed process is probably too narrowly construed (unlike the process which converted the Presidio in San Francisco).

    WRT the actual McMillan reservoir, post-9/11, the EPA issued a variety of regulations concerning public safety and access to drinking water supplies, making it much harder for the facilities to also serve as parks. (I don't know what the deal is with the reservoirs in Baltimore County and why they still function as parks). Cities such as Portland and Seattle have been considering "capping" the open bodies of water to meet the regulations.

  • M

    The actual reservoir and land immediately surrounding it has been closed to the public since WWII. Post-9/11, seems unlikely it would be reopened.

  • Steve

    In terms of historic preservation, it would make more sense to develop McMillan for playing fields and figure out a complementing use for the filter towers, like cafes, for example. It could be a recreational asset for the whole region, and the fields are already constructed. All they would have to do is put some soil over it.

  • Anon

    That's crazy talk about El Toro, Will. El Toro's only about 10 miles from John Wayne (and almost due east) so you'd just be adding another airport about 85 miles from San Diego (and essentially the same freeway commute). A new airport located somewhere between OC and SD makes sense, but two airports in Irvine just doesn't. And you left out Long Beach, Burbank, and Ontario airports, all of which are significantly closer to John Wayne than San Diego is.

    I agree with the argument that, in some cases, the greater good may clash with the interests of the immediate neighbors, but that doesn't mean that the immediate neighbors' opposition (as in the El Toro or McMillan case) is a sign that a project serves the greater good. Often both sets of interests align or could be aligned by the right project. I think the latter scenario is what we're dealing with at McMillan and it'll be a challenge for the development team to produce that "right" project. They're not there yet.

  • Anon X

    Playing fields arent an option. Private developers own the land. Something is going to have to be profitable. The ship has sailed on uses that make no money.

  • Anon

    Doesn't the city still own the land? I don't think it'll be transferred to private hands unless/until the HPRB and zoning approvals are forthcoming.

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