The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site is a 25-acre area bounded by North Capitol Street, NW; Michigan Avenue, NW; First Street, NW and Channing Street, NW. Structures on the site consist of twenty underground sand filtration chambers and two east-west service access courts on which stand rows of sand storage bins, sand washing equipment and regulator houses. The site is part of the larger historic McMillan Park Reservoir, a significant contributing element in the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC. McMillan Park Reservoir is listed on the National Register and the DC Register of Historic Places and it has been recommended by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Sites. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has designated the McMillan Sand Filtration Site as a site for a National Monument or Museum and the site has been listed four times on the D.C. Preservation League list of most endangered historic sites.
History and Significance
The Sand Filtration Site was the first water treatment plant in the city and an important element in the city’s aqueduct and water supply system. It was operated by the Army Corps of Engineers from 1905 until 1986 when the Corps built a new water filtration system on the McMillan Reservoir grounds and sold the old site to the District. The sand bed filtration system ensured the quality and purity of the drinking water and reduced the spread of typhoid and other water-borne diseases. L’Enfant laid down the template for the boulevards, squares, and circles that make the District of Columbia unique among American cities in 1791. But it was the McMillan Plan in 1901 under Michigan Senator James McMillan that brought L’Enfant’s vision to fruition. That Plan was a result of the work of the United States Senate Park Commission, created in 1901 by the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia and chaired by Senator McMillan. The Commission included not only Senators and Congressman, but also included many prominent people who had become associated with the City Beautiful movement, including planner/architect Daniel Burnham, architect Charles McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. The Commission set out to create a comprehensive plan to preserve park space and provide for the recreation and health of the growing city. The spaces chosen for this purpose were primarily hilltops with extensive views of the city, creating an “emerald necklace” of parks along the high points of the city as places to escape urban life while still in town. McMillan Park realized that ideal by combining the new below-ground sand filtration system with the above-ground park and landscape created by Olmsted Jr. The park grounds, which originally surrounded the reservoir on both sides of First Street, NW, was named after Senator McMillan as a memorial to his crucial work on the McMillan Plan by President Taft after McMillan’s untimely death in 1902. The fountain of the Three Graces which originally stood at the corner of First and Bryant Streets, NW, was paid for by the schoolchildren of McMillan’s home state of Michigan. The original fountain’s statue is currently visible just inside the First Street, NW gates of the reservoir facility (but not open to the public). Washingtonians enjoyed McMillan Park, one of the city’s first integrated parks, until it was fenced off at the beginning of WWII for security reasons, to protect the city’s water supply from feared enemy sabotage. The fountain was dismantled and most parts of the base were moved to elsewhere in the city, and the stone benches that once adorned the park were removed. The Army Corps of Engineers used the facility until 1986 when it completed a new water filtration facility beside the reservoir grounds. The Corps then offered the old Sand Filtration Site for sale to the District, for one dollar if the District chose to keep the land as a park, for market value ($9.3 million) if the District chose to develop the land. The District chose the latter and has offered several development plans for the site over the years, most of them distasteful to the community for the lack of park space contained in the plans.
2006 – Present
In 2006 the District awarded Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) a contract to propose a plan to develop the site while the District remained the developer. The three VMP partners, Trammel Crow, EYA, and Jair Lynch, have proposed construction of rather massive office and residential buildings, many targeted for the Washington Hospital Center, and demolition of 18 of the 20 underground water purification cells, leaving a rather small park. The plan has been sharply criticized by the surrounding community for leaving too little park space (a recent survey revealed that 85% of nearby residents want any development to include 50% of the land as open, contiguous park space), destroying panoramic views, and demolishing too many of the underground caverns rather than creatively re-using them. A Catholic University Architecture professor has proposed for community consideration an alternate plan that preserves 50% contiguous park and contains a large community recreation center. The HPRB has recently cited many examples of how the proposed VMP plan is unnecessarily destructive of many historical and landscape elements of this extraordinary site. Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie has come out solidly backing the proposed plan though Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has urged the HPRB to reject the plan as too destructive of the historic site. As of December 2012, DC Water, working with the Mayor and the DC Council, have made plans to use parts of the site to store storm water and stage the drilling of a sewer tunnel under 1st St. NW to avert the catastrophic flooding experience in Bloomingdale and LeDroit Park in the summer of 2012, throwing the city’s other development plans up in the air for the moment.
What can I do?
- Visit the http://friendsofmcmillan.org and http://envisionmcmillan.com web pages, and google the terms “McMillan Sand Filtration Site,” “McMillan Park,” to find out current information.
- Contact the decision-makers in the District government and tell them what you’d like to see happen on the site and what you think of the Mayor’s proposed development:
- Mayor Vincent Gray, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 316, Washington, DC, 20004; 202-727-6300, fax: 202-727-0505, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 402, Washington, DC, 20004; 202-724-8064, fax: 202-724-8099, email@example.com
- Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 410, Washington, DC, 20004; 202-724-8028, fax: 202-724-8076, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Councilmember Jim Graham, Ward 1, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 105, Washington, DC, 20004; 202-724-8181, fax: 202-724-8109, email@example.com
- Councilmember David Grosso, At-Large, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Suite 406, Washington, DC, 20004; 202-724-8105, fax: 202-724-8071, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Gretchen Pfaehler, Chair, Historic Preservation Review Board, 1100 4th St. SW, Suite E650, Washington, DC, 20024
- Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, 2136 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 20515; 202-225-8050
- Congressman Darrell Issa, 2347 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 20515; 202-225-3906
- Anthony Williams, CEO, Federal City Council, 1156 16th St. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC, 20005; 202-223-4560