Housing Complex

D.C.’s Biggest Development Project: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow?

The McMillan site of today.

Twenty-five years ago, the D.C. government paid $9.3 million for a 25-acre site along North Capitol Street that it hoped to develop into a mixed-use community. And for a quarter century, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has sat fenced off and vacant, a waste of valuable space that leaves most passersby wondering about the vaguely alien mounds and towers.

The McMillan site of tomorrow?

Back in 1987, according to deputy mayor Victor Hoskins' prepared testimony at a D.C. Council roundtable yesterday, "the intent then, as it is now, was to provide retail amenities, community resources, and most importantly jobs in an area that has been historically underserved by these features." But year after year, bickering over the development plans has maintained the status quo—that is, a state of deterioration that forced the city to shut down the old landmark to even the occasional tours that used to pass through.

But—at the risk of ignoring the lessons of history—it does appear that there's some momentum now for the latest development plans. Despite pockets of continuing local opposition, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission whose domain includes the site voted Monday to support the Master Development Plan drafted by Vision McMillan Partners, led by EYA, Jair Lynch Development Partners, and Trammell Crow Company. And at yesterday's hearing, the two D.C. councilmembers present— Kenyan McDuffie of Ward 5, where the site is located, and Michael Brown, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development and Housing—both strongly backed the plan. So did a number of community members who showed up despite what one termed "McMillan fatigue" in order to help end the decades of foot-dragging.

And then there were the opponents. Residents of neighboring Bloomingdale expressed their fear that the development would worsen the flooding that's repeatedly hit the area this year. Others worried that the nine acres of open space were inadequate, given the results of an local survey showing that the overwhelming majority of neighbors wanted at least half of the site to remain green. Some complained about the increase in traffic that might result. One local, Kirby Vining, likened the administration's hunger for development to "prostitution."

It's hard to please everyone. Just take a look at the “nine core goals” for the site, according to Hoskins:

1. Meaningful PRESERVATION that captures the history and beauty of McMillan
2. Large, inviting OPEN SPACES throughout the site
3. GROCERY and local, neighborhood serving RETAIL
4. Economic diversification and JOB CREATION
5. Expansion of HEALTHCARE options to serve our residents
6. Mix of HOUSING types and AFFORDABILITY levels
7. HIGHEST QUALITY planning, architecture, and park design
8. BALANCE community needs with District resources
9. Concurrence with the District’s COMPREHENSIVE PLAN

You’d expect a grab-bag of aims like this to produce a scheme roughly resembling this or this. Instead, the planners appear to have created a design with reasonable coherence and non-negligible neighborhood support, the inevitably NIMBY outcry notwithstanding.

Of course, there's still plenty of tinkering to do. But let's hope that the opponents of the current design work constructively to incorporate their ideas rather than stall the whole project for another 10 or 20 years. Brown hammered this point home in a forceful jab at the naysayers.

"I am extremely serious about getting past the rhetoric, the half-truths and frankly some of the deliberate false information that some chose to put out instead of having honest discussion," Brown said. "What that does is takes away from discussing the two real issues that must be dealt with if this project is to be an unqualified success of well-planned and well-executed community development. Those issues are storm and waste water management and traffic."

And maybe some additional park space. (Though parks are that much more useful if there are people around to use them—and it's hard to argue with a grocery store in an area that's lacking easy access to one.) But these are, given the magnitude of the project, not much more than details, and there ought to be a compromise that'll allow development to begin in our lifetimes.

After all, something, anything, is better than the wasteland we've got now.

Photo by David Monack (Wikimedia Commons). Drawing courtesy of Vision McMillan Partners.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    It's nice to see Housing Complex back in action!


    Maximize usable park(s), Stormwater retention (100%), include as many mass transit nodes as possible (bus, bikeshare, carshare, trolly?), traffic mitigation should be the order or priority.

  • Jeff

    Also glad to see Housing Complex popping back up in my RSS feed.

    Glad to hear McDuffie is giving his firm support. After voting for him this spring, I was really disappointed to hear about his opposition to the Springarn High School streetcar barn. Just seemed like pure baseless "not-in-my-ward"-ism. A mixed use development here will do wonders for the neighborhood, and put some very well-situated land to much better use.

    I'm mystified why "expansion of HEALTHCARE options" is on the priorities list. This is directly adjacent to the largest hospital complex in the city.

    Then again I'm also mystified by the absolute insistence on historic preservation with this site. It just seems like a spooky semi-industrial remnant of a defunct public infrastructure project, not some architectural marvel or old neighborhood.

  • http://image.spreadshirt.com/image-server/v1/compositions/17790220/views/1,width=280,height=280,appearanceId=1.png/i-m-an-idiot_design.png Hugh Youngblood

    Our NIMBY cries will not cease even after the area is developed!

  • NE John

    I agree with Jeff on several points. First, while I voted for Tim Day, I expected McDuffie to to support things like the car barn.

    Regarding McMillan, it is comical that the proposed development is using visual elements of the filtration plant in the actual plans. What the heck? The fact that it has sat vacant, ugly and useless has actually shape shifted this industrial site into something historic? Give me a break! And I've been riding by that waste of space for 55+ years.

  • H St NE

    Glad to hear McDuffie is giving his support to this project, but I wouldn't trust him. As a resident of H St NE area, I was really disappointed over his opposition to the Springarn High School streetcar barn site that would provide a great help that area of Benning Road and the school. I am hopeful his ill-advised intervention was a only a rookie mistake will not slow this important project further.

  • DC Guy

    I am having a hard time understanding the flooding issues. How can a site that is currently barely porous be better than a site that has modern water capture and retention techniques? This is one of the worse elements of the opposition outcry.

  • Bloomie

    Thank you Michael Brown for your reasonable assesment of this development. Do it right and ensure that the traffic and water (waste and storm)doesn't F up my neighborhood

  • Johnny

    NE John. I think you are one of the few that doesn't think those old towers are worth incorporating into the design. Ever been to gasworks park in seattle?
    What I want to know is will the actual reservoir ever be opened for recreational use? Not the pond itself but if the fences were moved in closer to the water it would make for a nice park. There is already a road that circles the pond. It would really improve the quality of life of the surrounding hoods to be able to picnic by the pond. Walk dogs and ride bikes around it. It would raise property values generating prop taxes for the city coffers. It seems like such a simple thing to do. And before people say its a safety/terrorist issue with out water supply. Every other city seems to incorporate their reservoirs into a park like setting. From Baltimores Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton to Central Parks Onasis Reservoir. Why can't we do the same? You would have to dump a 20 truckloads of cyanide in there to have an effect and then it would be detected and I'm assuming shut down. Of all the streetscape improvements and park building the city has done in the past decade here is the cheapest opportunity of them all with the most bang for the buck. Move the fence to the waterline.

  • tntdc

    McMillian Park was one of the key aspects of the McMillian Plan. It's closure had as much to do with interracial couples meeting there as any fears of Japanese or German agents poisoning the water.

    DC paid a premium for the park from the US so it could give it to developers. DC could have gotten it free if it had agreed to return it to a park.

    Let's concrete over Central Park in NYC.

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  • norb

    I find it so sad that the VA is building its gargantuan parking garage to add to its other massive concrete parking garage across the street, to add to the massive parking lot of washington hospital and the clover leaf interchange at Irving and North Capitol, yet the McMillan site is the site that people are choosing to develop most.

    The plan is fine I guess. Aaron is right -- hopefully some more parkspace and preservation are added while maintaining or even increasing the densities on the remaining land.

    But still, this larger area needs a good master plan that takes into account all of these sites, transit, etc. The root of all the problems with opposition to this site could be alleviated by not only looking at the site itself. For instance, why cannot the public have more access to the park area around the actual reservoir that is not finished drinking water? (birds can crap here but people cannot get within 100 feet)

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    Johnny and Norb: Couldn't agree more. Recently tried to jog around the reservoir and was stopped by a security guard. It wouldn't take all that much to turn it into something comparable to Central Park's jogger-surrounded reservoir.

  • norb


    The reservoir is not finished water, therefore you're right, there is not threat of providing more access to people around it as in other cities, and as it was planned. If it were finished water (e.g. ready for drinking), the EPA requires that it be covered. I think the real reason is that DC Water and the Army Corps run the site and they don't really have any interested in running a park on their site, and no one has ever really pushed them to do so.

  • norb

    You're right, Aaron, it would be great to have something like that in Central Park. It would be an interesting story to hear from DC Water on this, as well as the history of the site (the fountain I hear was pretty cool and word has it that people in the neighborhood used to go sleep there on hot summer nights).

  • http://www,smartergrowth.net Cheryl Cort

    Glad to see Housing Complex back. Good post. Note that the reservoir across the street from the 25-acre sand filtration site in question is 68 acres. Many other cities used their drinking water reservoirs as a recreational amenity. We should be able to as well. We dont need more than the already generous amount of park space for the proposed development plan, we need the Army Corps of Engineers to work with us on its 68-acre reservoir site that contains the original park and fountain.

  • DCHomeBuyer

    Would love to see this project get on a fast track - it's about time for a grocery store over here! Also agree with the reservoir park suggestion, as well. Would be wonderful for residents and home values, alike.

  • nicola

    Yes, I was one of the opponents ,long ago.
    still am to the uncreative use , if its the same plan presented then.
    Numerous studies showed that it is unsuitable to build on because of the structure of the underground.
    What an opportunity to create a museum plus international study center about water, water treatment possibilities in developing countries that are more labor intensive and those that have a lot of sand.
    Money could come in various ways.
    We need a pace to raise consciousness around water world wide.
    WAWSHINGTON DC, what an ideal location it would be.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Yay for Housing Complex!

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  • pows3

    build a gigantic development then put a public park green roof on top of the whole thing.

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  • Barrie Daneker

    NOTE ANC5c03 comments above Hugh Youngblood "Our NIMBY cries will not cease even after the area is developed!"

    This is just like the republicans we have in congress and this guy is running for office again! Time for new leadership in ANC5C...oust Hugh Youngblood so we can have a united Bloomingdale instead of a divided one!

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  • Chris

    Just to educate on stormwater management, there is no such thing as 100% retention. Retention requirements are dictated in storm events, as in a storm likely to occur every 1, 2, 10, 25, or 100 years. At a minimum 1-year is usually captured and infiltrated or released at a slow rate. Typically the most that is ever controlled is the 100-yr storm, which would be for when downstream flooding of buildings is a problem. This also doesn't mean that it is 100% captured, but controlled so that it is released at a safer rate.

    Also remember that there is always a cost trade off. Stormwater management is good, but it is also important to not put on overly strict control levels more than necessary, as this drives up cost and removes valuable space that could be used for other things.

  • Chris

    Thank you DC Guy. I design stormwater management systems, and always find public comments on stormwater to be misinformed. I've heard this site be called a natural "green roof", when in reality there would not be much infiltration going on there. Stormwater control requirements are so much more stringent today, so of course any new development here will be implementing a much higher level of control than any of the surrounding neighborhoods.