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

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There are competing visions for what should be done with the McMillan sand filtration site in Northwest D.C.
There are competing visions for what should be done with the McMillan sand filtration site in Northwest D.C.

This is the second part of a two-part story on the McMillan Sand Filter Project. To find out more about the history and inner workings of the site, read Part 1.

An animation from Envision McMillan Animation depicting the plans for development generated by the public-private collaboration.

The historic McMillan Sand Filtration site is a place that has come to be thought of as the District's version of Stonehenge. But now the McMillan site, just off of North Capitol Street NW, is on the verge of getting its own fresh start, but not everyone is happy about that.

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

"The level of misinformation about this site is staggering," she says.

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," Corbett says.

And the last time it was open to the public was before World War II.

"In the development process, there's 20+ 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,'" Corbett says.

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 the vast majority of the land was covered by a grid of 2100 manhole covers used to service the sand filtration caverns underneath.

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.

"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 wanted to go to a park, it has to be adapted," she says, "Unless you simply want to stroll the perimeter."

Videographer Snorre Wik produced this PSA video on the McMillan Park.

A competing vision of the McMillan site

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.

"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 the nation. And that's a history that we're not getting out of this," says Tony Norman, a member of Friends of McMillan, a group formed to oppose what it sees as thoughtless redevelopment of the site.

"We always say we want to be a state — every state preserves its heritage," he says. "The District wants to sell its heritage. This site is a part of our heritage and the evolution of Washington D.C."

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, 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.

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.

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

That comparison to a parking lot may be an apt one when it comes to stormwater.

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.

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

A cloudy future for McMillan site

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.

"That's one of the deepest concerns to me: 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?" Vining says.

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.

[Music: "I Can't Get Started" by Cannonball Adderley from Ballads]


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