Eyes on McMillan: Making Decisions on the Best Use of the District’s Historic Green Space
By Jeffrey Anderson
With DC still in building mode, and a pile of development projects on her plate, Mayor Muriel Bowser faces unique challenges in ordering her priorities. One project particularly fraught with complexity and controversy has landed on the desk of her agent for historic preservation, who is expected to make major decisions in the coming weeks: The McMillan Sand Filtration Site.
Slated for residential, retail and medical office space, and a park, the 25-acre historic water filtration facility is located in Ward 5, bordered by North Capitol Street, First Street, Michigan Avenue and Channing Street, NW, adjacent to Children’s National Medical Center, MedStar Washington Hospital Center and Veterans Affairs Medical Center. It consists of 20 underground sand filtration cells, 20 cylindrical, ivy-covered brick storage bins and regulator houses, and an expanse of open space adjacent to McMillan Reservoir, which is still in use.
The reservoir, named for Michigan Senator James McMillan,was designed and built in the mid-to-late 19th century by Army General Montgomery Meigs as part of the Washington Aqueduct, which carried water from the Potomac River to the site, where it was filtered and purified for drinking in a sand bed filtration system designed by hydraulics expert Allen Hazen. Upon its completion in 1905, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was commissioned to design the entire area consisting of the reservoir and the filtration site. The public enjoyed the grounds until the early 1950s when the government fenced off the facility to ward off attack by foreign enemies. The Army Corps of Engineers decommissioned the site in 1985 after installing a chemical filtration plant at the reservoir.
The McMillan site is a DC Historic Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites. The National Capital Planning Commission designated it as a site for a national monument or museum. The DC Preservation League lists it among the city’s most endangered historic sites.
In 2007, Vision McMillan Partners, a team consisting of EYA LLC, Trammell Crow Company and local “urban regeneration company” Jair Lynch Development Partners, secured development rights and now has exclusive right to purchase the parcel, which the District bought in 1987 from the Army Corps for $9.3 million. Residents have been at odds with the city over what to do with the site ever since.
If completed, the VMP development would consist of a medical facility with ground-floor retail, a residential block of 281 multifamily units and 146 row houses with a grocery store, and a 6.2 acre park with a community center. It would feature a natural amphitheater, water playgrounds, and a “walking museum” to evoke McMillan’s history. The development would “amplify a unique place in Washington, DC,” according to VMP’s website.
Last Thursday, the developer asked the Historic Preservation Review Board for approval to subdivide the site. Finding the proposal “incompatible” with its historic nature, the board referred the matter to the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation, Peter Byrne, for a decision in keeping with “the character of the historic landmark.” Byrne already is considering whether an exception to the Landmark Preservation Act should be granted for demolition of the site. That would require a finding of “special merit,” defined as “significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services.”
VMP is confident that its plan meets the criteria: At the HPRB hearing, Lynch likened the preservation of many of the site’s historic elements to a “fine Swiss watch,” with no one factor dominating “the enhancement of its design.”
Why McMillan? Why Now?
Facing an $83 million budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, Bowser already is looking to build a soccer stadium at Buzzards Point, redevelop Walter Reed Army Medical Center and convert St. Elizabeth’s Hospital into a secure facility to house the US Department of Homeland Security.
Even though a master plan for McMillan has been approved and a deal is in place for VMP to purchase the land, which the DC Council has approved as surplus, no sale has occurred and the onus is on the mayor to bring some form of development to fruition. But there are competing visions: To some, the site is an untended eyesore overdue for development. (VMP estimates a 30-year return of approximately $513 million from the project, and the creation of 1,584 permanent jobs, at least a third of which are to be set aside for DC residents.) Others see it as a sacred space, the lungs of the city for much of the 20th century, an architectural and engineering marvel to be preserved for adaptive re-use.
In 1989, two years after the District purchased the site, residents staved off a proposal to build a K-Mart and a church. Though the District has solicited proposals several times over the years, the site has proven too complex to tackle. In 2012, VMP presented its development plan to the HPRB, prompting Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, Stronghold Civic Association and Bloomingdale Civic Association, to oppose the project. A group calling itself “Friends of McMillan Park” has gathered some 7,000 signatures asking the mayor to consider more creative land use designs, preserve at least 50 percent open space and re-purpose the underground caverns. A counter-resistance, under the banner “Create McMillan Park,” supports the VMP plan, as does ANC 5C.
The site is complicated by the Clean Rivers Project, which has DC Water using two underground cells and the southern portion of the site for storm-water retention. In 2013, HPRB approved a master plan that would demolish most of the remainder of the underground cells. Last October, the DC Zoning Commission said it was approving a Planned Use Development permit, but has yet to issue a written order. In December, the Council unanimously approved a resolution to declare the land surplus and a resolution to allow the sale to go forward.
Neither VMP nor District officials appear eager to talk about McMillan. Baltimore’s Fontaine and Company, “a grassroots advocacy and public affairs firm” that represents VMP, referred questions to Bowser. Her office did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who has thrown his weight behind the project.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson made his feelings about McMillan clear in 2012, before he became Council chair: “I am aware of the desire of the government to see this site developed,” he wrote to the HPRB. “Presumably the District would recoup its [financial] investment, this fallow land would be put to use, new housing units would be built and commercial opportunities created, and the tax base would grow. But enthusiasm for development must be tempered against the qualities of this unique site — exactly the purpose for the Landmark Preservation Act — which is why the proposed plan should be rejected.”
However, since becoming chairman, Mendelson has sided with his colleagues. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Three new members of the Council are playing catch-up on the McMillan saga, and two more will be elected this year. Recently elected At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman, an Independent, said she appreciates the proximity to nearby hospitals, which are major employers, but noted that transportation options are limited and expressed an interest in preserving “green space.” Should a bond issue or other matter come before the Finance and Revenue Committee, she said, “I will be looking more closely.”
Proponents regard the project as a virtual fait accompli. “We need approval for the affordable housing component, and then the only thing left is a lawsuit,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director of the Coalition For Smarter Growth, with a chuckle. Cort points to the medical offices as a revenue generating enterprise in an area that suffers for jobs. “We need to increase the role of the medical center and redevelop what is underutilized space, and integrate it with public space and incorporate retail and affordable housing.”
Cort notes that, “We added 30,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010, and since then even more. We want to stop sprawl and bring people into the city. The challenges now are how to make the city affordable and adaptive.”
Peter Harnik, director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, which has no official position, said undeveloped, public-owned urban land with historical protection is somewhat of a rarity, and that it takes a long time for the public to take the issues seriously. “It’s hard to fall in love with [McMillan],” Harnik said, noting that it’s been fenced off for so long that “the city has marginalized it.” Harnik acknowledged the importance of creating jobs, housing space and transit options while preserving “a significant chunk” of green space, and pointed to “tremendous success” in Seattle, New York and Detroit to “use indigenous historical artifacts” in the adaptive re-use of existing infrastructure.
At What Cost McMillan?
Although tight-lipped on McMillan, District officials seem resolute in preparing to meet the challenges articulated by Cort and other “smart growth” advocates. But for the moment, it is unclear how Bowser will proceed with such a full plate before her. In that regard, McMillan is a slow-rolling train, destined to test Bowser’s vision and ability to balance growth through density with preservation and re-use of historic sites.
The project could clear another hurdle any week now. The Mayor’s Agent is expected to rule by the end of March on whether the plan is compatible with McMillan’s historic nature, and delivers “significant benefit” from a planning, architectural and community needs perspective, which could set the stage for a sale of the land and, eventually, shovels in the dirt.
But other issues exist beyond community opposition and the potential for a lawsuit, not the least of which is how to pay for the project at a time in which the city is weighing numerous other high-profile developments.
A Nov. 25, 2014, memo from DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt to DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson warns that “Funds are not sufficient in FY 2015 through FY 2018 budget and financial plan” to transfer the property to VMP under a “Land Disposition Agreement” signed by the parties last October. For the District, the estimated costs of meeting its obligations to provide “infrastructure improvements and amenities” is $78 million, according to DeWitt. Currently, approximately $45 million is budgeted through FY 2016, resulting in a $33 million shortfall.
Once approved for sale, DeWitt continues, the disposition of the site will reduce the city’s real property assets by more than $31 million.
In order to facilitate the sale, the District must amend its laws to ensure proceeds go to upholding its obligations under the LDA, the memo states. Even then, the District will be $6 million short of fully funding the project.
Meanwhile, the city is paying VMP’s bills and those costs are adding up. Last October, the DC Council approved a $1,340,000 budget for VMP for development services in FY2015 alone. According to contractor and subcontractor invoices submitted to the mayor’s office, the District already has paid out more than $6 million, for landscape design, consulting fees, public relations services, and lobbyist and lawyer fees.
All of which suggests that Bowser’s agent for historical preservation is about to make a decision that could be an early but key piece of her evolving legacy — one that she’ll have to figure out how to pay for.
This is the first of the Eyes on McMillan series that will examine how the District is making decisions on the best use of its land and resources.