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DC’s Most Contentious Development Battle Is About to Heat Up

Opponents of building a mixed-use development at the historic McMillan Sand Filtration Site say they’re going to put up a “very emotional” fight.

The McMillan Sand Filtration Site has been fenced off since World War II. Photograph by Flickr user carfreedc.

A divisive real-estate battle will crank up to a new level Thursday night when the DC Zoning Commission begins hearings on the future of the McMillan Sand Filtration site, a decommissioned water treatment plant and former park, adjacent to the McMillan Reservoir, that is targeted for massive redevelopment.

Tonight’s hearing is the first of three on the 25-acre historic landmark, coming seven years after the District government awarded a consortium of development firms the rights to remake the parcel. But McMillan’s history as a civic park has riled nearby residents who hope to derail further gentrification in Northwest and Northeast DC.

“There are a lot of people in the community who are outraged by the prospect of putting up high-rises,” says Kirby Vining, the treasurer of Friends of McMillan Park, one of the groups leading the opposition.

McMillan, recognizable by its 20 moss-covered silos sitting atop a cavernous network of cells used to filter drinking water through sand, was also the District’s first desegregated park when it opened in 1905. It’s been fenced off since World War II. The filtration plant was decommissioned in 1986. Biannual tours were allowed between 1987, when the District government purchased the site, and 2012.

The city plans to allow a mixed-use development with apartment buildings, office space, restaurants, and stores to revive the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed area. The current redevelopment plan calls for 2.1 million square feet of new property, including 150 townhouses, 520 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail, a 50,000-square foot grocery store, a 17,000-square foot community center, and a 1 million-square foot health care facility. It would also leave 12 acres of park land, with all 20 historic silos left intact, though nearly all of the underground campus would be demolished.

The proposed redevelopment would incorporate McMillan’s iconic silos into modern, mixed-use buildings. Rendering courtesy Vision McMillan Partners.

Friends of McMillan is seeking to have “party status” in the zoning hearing, which would put the group on equal footing with the redevelopment group, Vision McMillan Partners. That would permit the anti-development advocates to cross-examine city officials and developers and subject the process to greater legal scrutiny. Vining says he has five or six witnesses lined up for tonight’s hearing.

The District awarded Vision McMillan Partners—made up of firms Jair Lynch, EYA, and Trammell Crow—the rights to remake the site back in 2007, but Vining points out the process was uncompetitive.

“What comes with it is offensive,” Vining says. “I’d like to see it opened up as a park.”

Civic groups in the Bloomingdale and Stronghold neighborhoods that border McMillan want Vision McMillan Partners to scale back the building designs and add more green space and parking spots.

Even altering the redevelopment plan is a long shot, even though DC’s Historic Preservation Review Board asked the developers to downsize their plans when they approved the overall plan. The Zoning Commission could asked for more modifications, but will most likely let the development go forward.

But before that happens, development buffs, historic preservation enthusiasts, real-estate reporters, and zoning commissioners may want to invest in earplugs. Vining’s members plan to show up to tonight’s hearing in force, and “those people may get very emotional,” he says.

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  • Sydney

    It's Olmsted Junior. Big difference. Either way, the VMP plan preserves and restores the Olmsted walk that has disappeared in the decades of neglect.

    The attorney for the hideously misnamed "Save" McMillan "Park" Thorn Pozen got schooled at the hearing. His clueless cross-examination -- where he mostly tried to deliver inarticulate, misleading testimony -- comprised only one-dimensional questions about wild-hare matters outside scope of the evening. What an embarrassingly pathetic performance -- but representative of the cause. Thanks to his off-base request for real estate appraisals for his clients, it came to light that the ("four or five") opponents who in fact live near the site (among the "5,000" signatures against VMP's creation of the park), worry that VMP's nice housing stock will drive down the values of their homes in Stronghold & Bloomingdale. Good to know, finally, what their contrived beef is. Otherwise, it's made no sense that the people poised to benefit the most from the development would oppose it. Now it makes . . . even less sense.

  • QoS

    What arrogance for us to assume the decision to demolish a piece of history falls to us, the people who live in DC now, in 2014! If previous generations thought like this, Rome would have no Coliseum, Athens would have no Parthenon, etc. Buy into "we are living in the end times" if you want, but the rest of us are betting that civilization will continue, at least for a few more generations. Are we really going to tell our children, "Sure, it was special, but not as special as having a 7-11 within walking distance!"

  • thecomiss

    So an outdated, industrial site that wasn't the first of it's kind is historic. You know squat about historic sites. On top of all the bs about the site. It never really worked, because a few years after it was built they had to add chemicals to the flitering process anyway! so please save your sob story about saving history for some other project casue this one is not IT!

  • Sydney

    Do actually know anything of the history of those three buildings? Spoliation, war, decrepitude: you're providing evidence for the opposite of what the opponents of want.

  • likedrypavement

    "add more green space and parking spots": that's contradictory. Densely develop the long fallow acres and build in transit to minimize the need for congestion generating traffic.

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