How Much History Should Be Saved At D.c.'s Mcmillan Site? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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How Much History Should Be Preserved At D.C.'s McMillan Site?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:10
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today our theme is "Fresh Starts." And if you remember last week we visited the McMillan Sand Filtration site, just off North Capitol Street Northwest. The site has become, as environment reporter Jonathan Wilson put it, the District's version of Stonehenge. Well, now the place is on the verge of getting its own fresh start. Jonathan brings us this story on what's being proposed and why some residents are so thrilled.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:36
Annie Corbett says she's spent a good part of the past two years dispelling myths and rumors about the McMillan Sand Filtration property.

MS. ANNIE CORBETT

00:00:45
The level of misinformation about this site is staggering.

WILSON

00:00:49
Corbett is the project coordinator for Vision McMillan Partners, the public-private collaboration between the mayor's office and a team of developers, engineers and architects. She says it makes sense that there are so many different narratives surrounding the McMillan site. It has sat, unchanged and unused, for more than two decades. And the last time it was open to the public? Before World War II.

CORBETT

00:01:12
In the development process, there's 20-plus years of storytelling around who said what, and who intended what, and who controls what, and "What used to happen when my grandma lived there."

WILSON

00:01:26
As far as Corbett and her team are concerned, the McMillan Sand Filtration site was an industrial property, cleverly designed to look as park-like as possible. There was a tree-lined walking path around the rim of the site, but as far as the vast majority of the land, it was covered by a grid of 2100 manhole covers used to service the sand filtration caverns underneath.

WILSON

00:01:50
Corbett says McMillan was only a recreational site in the context of the early 1900s, when enjoying a park meant little more than a leisurely stroll in suits and long dresses.

CORBETT

00:02:01
And so in order to create a park in the context of 2014, and the kinds of things that you and I might like to do today if we were to go to a park, it has to be adapted. Unless you simply want to stroll the perimeter.

WILSON

00:02:15
For those who oppose the current development plan, the fight is about much more than deciding what a park is or is not. But the history of what took place on the McMillan Sand Filtration site before it was fenced off during World War II is important. Aerial photos taken before the war show the paths of a baseball diamond worn into the ground among all those manhole covers, suggesting that whether they were supposed to or not, local children made this their playground. And there's more.

MR. TONY NORMAN

00:02:45
Because of the heat, blacks and whites went on the site to sleep at night. And it was the first de facto integrated park in this nation. And that's a history that we're not getting out of this.

WILSON

00:02:58
That's Tony Norman, a member of Friends of McMillan, a group formed to oppose what it sees as thoughtless redevelopment of the site.

NORMAN

00:03:05
We always say we want to be a state. Every state preserves its heritage. The District wants to sell its heritage. This site is a part of our heritage and the evolution of Washington D.C.

WILSON

00:03:16
The Vision McMillan team, of course, takes issue with that characterization. Annie Corbett says after countless town hall meetings and adjustments to the original Vision McMillan proposal, the plan addresses just about every community concern that she's heard. It will preserve all the historic sand silos on the 25-acre site, while also containing an 8-acre park, a grocery store, and retail shopping. Vision McMillan's plan also calls for 10 percent of the new housing units on the site to be affordable to low income residents.

WILSON

00:03:45
And Corbett says while the McMillan site currently contributes to the flooding problems that often plague Ward 5, the new development should help, by retaining 100 percent of the water it collects, a huge improvement over current conditions.

CORBETT

00:04:00
While it looks grassy, it looks like a meadow, right now, it's actually 20 acres of cement. It collects water the same way a parking lot collects water, only retaining about 5 percent.

WILSON

00:04:12
That comparison to a parking lot may be an apt one when it comes to storm water. But Tony Norman and the Friends of McMillan say that's just it, the McMillan site isn't a parking lot. And he says that's how city leaders are treating it, like another empty plot of land that can bring the city more revenue and growth.

NORMAN

00:04:31
The proposals that we've submitted show that the site can be self-sustaining, and not a burden to the city. If they want to go in that direction, limited development, something great, a historic site. Or unless you want to treat it like a parking lot, and just cut it up into small pieces and put as much development as you can on it.

WILSON

00:04:49
Kirby Vining, the treasurer of Friends of McMillan, says the specifics of the Vision McMillan proposal aren't as important as the fact that the current plan emerged in 2007 from a non-competitive bidding process. Vining says competition would push architects, engineers and developers to come up with better ways to adapt the property and preserve its history.

MR. KIRBY VINING

00:05:11
That's one of the deepest concerns to me, is what kind of benefit are we talking about precluding by looking at only one plan that's going to eat up most of the site there?

WILSON

00:05:19
The Vision McMillan plan's next hurdle is a significant one. Though the District's historic preservation office approved the design last fall, the seven-member body also found that the plan would require substantial demolition of the historic landmark. That means ultimately the property's fate is in the hands of a city official known as the Mayor's Agent, who'll have to make a delicate decision about whether to preserve history, promote growth or try to achieve some balance between the two. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
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