Friends of McMillan Park (FOM) held a Town Hall meeting on Saturday, September 14th in the sanctuary of St. Martin’s Church in Bloomingdale. On a beautiful early fall afternoon, the meeting drew over 100 attendees. A wide variety of speakers described the Gray Administration’s plan to destroy historic McMillan Park, discussed potential alternative solutions, and recommended ways for the community to join the fight. After formal presentations, everyone moved downstairs to the Pioneer Room for refreshments donated by local businesses—and for more conversation.
Over the course of the afternoon, FOM collected dozens of signatures on its petition to the city government to reject Mayor Gray’s plan, bringing the total number of signatories opposing the plan to almost 4,800. The organization also did a brisk trade in sales of t-shirts, buttons, and stickers, netting hundreds of dollars to devote to the battle for the Park’s preservation.
Hugh Youngblood, Acting Executive Director of Friends of McMillan Park, laid out FOM’s mission: to preserve, restore, and adaptively reuse historic McMillan Park for the benefit of the public. John Salatti, a former Bloomingdale Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, introduced an oral history project in which the team has been documenting the stories of long-time residents who remember McMillan open as a public park. He played a clip from Ben Franklin, a 79 year-old Bloomingdale resident who reminisced about playing at the McMillan as a child and sleeping there when the weather was warm. “All this was in the ‘40s and ‘50s. You could walk or play in there. When my children came along this was all fenced in,” said Mr. Franklin. His description highlights the importance of the Park as an early integrated public space in the District.
Photo by Robert Sullivan
Tony Norman, Founder and Chairman of McMillan Park Committee (the precursor to FOM), reviewed the history of the site, beginning with its origin as a slow sand filtration plant designed to purify Washington’s drinking water, and as a public park included in the “Emerald Necklace” of Olmsted parks designed to ring the city. Because of the Park’s origins and its landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places, said Norman, the park is more than just part of the history of Ward 5; it’s part of the history of all of Washington, and therefore of the nation. Norman also spoke in detail about one alternative plan to transform the site designed by a team led by Miriam Gusevich of GM2 Studio. Norman emphasized ways that the alternative plan works with McMillan Park’s existing architecture and ecology, featuring an “urban beach” alongside the banks of a daylighted underground creek.
Gwen Southerland, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the McMillan site, detailed ideas that members of the community have suggested that the park serve during the 30-plus years that the land has remained unused. Citing examples of possible uses—from a Washington, DC history museum to formal gardens and a state-of-the-art recreation center—Southerland asked the audience, “What will most improve the quality of your life: items from this list or the offices and townhomes that form the bulk of the Mayor’s plan?”
Anna Simon, a Research and Instruction Librarian at Georgetown University, discussed how historical research on McMillan Park has provided insight into the site’s cultural and civic importance to Washington, DC. For instance, Simon’s research revealed that Eleanor Roosevelt planted a tree in the park in 1933. Simon also emphasized the continuity of the park over time, noting that Bloomingdale used to be filled with young families with children, and now that families are increasingly moving back, the area needs amenities to support them. “For those of us just joining the fight, it’s harder to understand the long struggle that’s been waged by the neighborhood against the city to keep the park open to people. The same issues we’re dealing with today we were dealing with 30 years ago.”
Kirby Vining, Treasurer of FOM, presented an overview of the Gray Administration’s current plan for McMillan Park, which was developed by Vision McMillan Partners. He noted that the DC Historic Preservation Review Board described one of the plan’s structures, a large black box, as “a mausoleum.” Vining noted that the overall reaction to the lackluster official plan was very negative.
Philip Blair of Brookland, a longtime advocate for preserving McMillan Park, spoke about seven core issues concerning any development proposals for the landmark, including the problems that the Mayor’s plan raises for storm water management, air quality, and traffic in the neighborhood. He also highlighted potential legal concerns with the current plan, as well as questions related to the lack of transparency in the process of public decision-making. He urged fellow activists to be conversant in all seven issues and to make themselves experts on at least one.
Jean-Christophe Deverines, a Bloomingdale resident and anti-trust economic analyst, walked attendees through a slide presentation that demonstrated how many other cities around the globe have handled adaptive reuse of existing parks and public works facilities. Ranging from the Parc de Bercy in Paris to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul to the Seattle Gas Works Park, Deverines’ presentation pointed out the potential for McMillan Park to become a truly world-class destination.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mark Mueller of Bloomingdale reviewed the results of a door-to-door community survey that he and others undertook in 2012 to formally assess public opinion regarding the park’s future for the first time ever. Showing a host of slides with breakdown of the survey results, Mueller remarked on how consistent responses were: 85% of survey respondents want McMillan’s surface to remain at least 50% park. Mueller’s view is that such consistent results should carry a clear message to District politicians regarding what their constituents actually prefer.
The town hall meeting concluded by adjourning to the church’s basement for pizza, pasta, cookies, and beer, all generously supplied by local businesses and artisans, and for discussion of what to do next. A few neighbors suggested holding quarterly town hall meetings to keep everyone abreast of political developments; several neighbors with legal experience signed up for the FOM legal team. During the discussion, residents raised serious concerns about the way that the proposed development would affect the neighborhood and objected to the plan’s failure to preserve the unique qualities of the historic site. Specifically, they objected to the following:
- the lack of any coherent and comprehensive plan from the District or its development partners regarding transportation issues
- the absence of consideration of other pressures on the neighborhood, including development of the Veterans Administration Hospital and the Armed Forces Retirement Home
- the lack of ideas for creative reuse of the underground sand filtration cells and above-ground structures in the city’s plan
- the problem of storm water management in an already flood-prone area
- the loss of unique historic vistas of Washington’s iconic buildings that the plan would entail
- the inconsistencies in and incoherence of the various parts of the Mayor’s plan, which throws elements together without seeming to consider their relationship
- the lack of affordable and senior housing in the plan
- the loss of a unique park designed by the Olmsted firm.
In addition to Father Michael Kelley of St. Martin’s church, who has so generously opened the church’s doors to both this and to many other community meetings, Friends of McMillan Park extends many thanks the following generous local businesses for providing food and drink: