National Trust “Extremely Troubled” by Proposed Development’s Disregard for McMillan Park Covenants

A view of McMillan Park in autumn.

A view of McMillan Park in autumn.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation added its testimony today in strong opposition to the most recent plans submitted by Vision McMillan Partners to develop historic landmark McMillan Park. The Trust’s statement joined dozens of testimonial letters voicing disapproval of the revised plans due to their failure to maintain the historic character of the site, which was constructed in 1904.

“The National Trust remains extremely troubled by the fact that the development plans completely disregard the binding historic preservation covenants that conditioned the sale
of the McMillan Reservoir site from the GSA to the City in 1987,” said Elizabeth Merritt, Deputy General Counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Ellicottdale Arch, Franklin Park, an Olmsted Park in Boston, MA. Olmsted National Historic Site, photo courtesy NPS  National Association of Olmsted Parks.

Ellicottdale Arch, Franklin Park, an Olmsted Park in Boston, MA. Olmsted National Historic Site, photo courtesy NPS National Association of Olmsted Parks.

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) received testimony before their public hearing today to determine if the Vision McMillan Partners’ revised plan upheld the site’s historic character. McMillan Park–originally the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant–was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. to serve as the city’s first water filtration plant.

John Singer Sargent,  Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted's son designed McMillan park.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted’s son designed McMillan Park.

Olmsted Jr., whose father designed Central Park, created the site as part of the US Senate Park Commission’s comprehensive plan to preserve park space and provide for the recreation and health of the growing city.

 Parc Monceau, a 20-acred park in Paris, France. McMillan has drawn comparisons to the urban park.

Parc Monceau, a 20-acred park in Paris, France. McMillan’s potential has drawn comparisons to the urban park.

The HPRB received letters from a large contingency of neighbors, DC citizens, architects, and preservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Association for Olmsted Parks, objecting to the destruction of the site’s historic character, which is composed in part by rolling green hills and ivy-covered towers. These letters are part of the pubic record and should be accessible soon.

“Why would the city choose to build on a park, any park, let alone a park of great significance?” asked one writer. Others called for an international competition to develop a new plan for reviving McMillan and utilizing its underground infrastructure. “Act like a world-class city.  Make no small plans. Let’s build for the ages; let’s honor this historic place,” concluded one letter writer.

Seattle Gas Works Park, a 20-acre reclaimed industrial space now used as an urban park and once slated for demolition.

Seattle Gas Works Park, a 20-acre reclaimed industrial space once slated for demolition and now used as an urban park. Architect Richard Haag realized that the site contained the last gas works and a unique opportunity for preservation.

Call to Action – Please Send McMillan Park Testimony to HPRB by October 30th

Dear Supporters:

We need your help.

We’ve reached a critical moment in the Gray Administration’s plan to destroy historic landmark McMillan Park and replace it with a plan designed by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP). The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) will consider the Mayor’s latest development plans for the Park on October 31st in a public hearing at 10:45 AM.

To see the VMP’s new concrete box nightmare, click here.

The HPRB helped us slow the Mayor’s relentless push to overdevelop the Park back in June, raising concerns that the development plan fails to preserve the Park’s historic character. We need to flood the HPRB with public comments once more to let the Board know that this concrete monstrosity represents an unacceptable destruction of a historic Olmsted park. Please send your written testimony to HPRB in advance and attend the hearing to testify in person if possible.

Below we’ve included a sample email for you to send to HPRB, plus a list of points that you can use to tailor your letter.

Help us send the message to the HPRB that this development plan is unacceptable for a Park that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places—our great city and our historic landmark deserve better!

Are you available to testify in person at the HPRB hearing on Thursday? Here’s what you need to know: The hearing will take place at 441 4th Street NW, Room 220 South (Metro: Red line, Judiciary Square station). Please bring printed copies of your testimony for the Board if possible. If you have any questions, please contact or 202.234.0427.

Here’s a sample email to send the HPRB:



Subject: McMillan Park Reservoir Historic District, HPA #13-318

Dear Members of the Historic Preservation Review Board:

I urge the Historic Preservation Review Board to reject Vision McMillan Partners revised master plan, design guidelines, and building designs proposed for McMillan Park Reservoir Historic District (HPA #13-318). The VMP revisions would be a visual blight on the neighborhood. The height, scale, and designs of the proposed buildings are inappropriate for the open McMillan Park site and are inconsistent with the overall character, sense of place, aesthetics, and historic vistas of this distinctive national landmark Olmsted park and engineering marvel. The proposed building designs are also incompatible with the site’s existing historic buildings and with its above- and below-ground historic structures.

Specifically, [insert your favorite points from the list of example design weaknesses provided here etc].

Open space is so important to the historic sense of place at McMillan Park that any infill development would be inappropriate. Would you subdivide all the scarce few Olmsted parks left in the District of Columbia? Please reject this application.


[Your Name]


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The InTowner: Historic McMillan Park Site in Bloomingdale Set for Big Development

Neighbors Object to Plan, Seek to Retain and Restore Open Space

By Mike Persley


One day, early in 1989, Kirby Vining got a knock on his door. Two men, Tony Norman and Darryl Jordan, both residents of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, stood out front and asked “Do you know what the city is planning to do with that right over there?,” they asked, pointing toward the old water filtration plant which had been fenced off from the public since World War II.

He didn’t. But he was curious.

The two men spoke about the history of the park, about the people of the neighborhood that used to play there, and about the beautiful features that were still intact.

As it turned out, the city was making plans to turn the old 25-acre site, McMillan Park, into a shopping center, with a K-Mart and other retail stores.

The site had not been in use since 1986, when the Army Corp of Engineers, the land’s previous owners, updated to a newer water filtration system.

No longer in need of the site’s towers or 20 underground caverns, the Engineers, in 1987, offered the city a deal: The land could be sold to the District for one dollar if it decided to keep the site as a park, or the city could pay $9.3 million if it chose to develop it. The city chose the latter.

Vining was not prone to activism, but something about McMillan stuck with him. Resistance to the city’s plan was building. Some people within Bloomingdale thought that the site’s historical value should be preserved.

McMillan was the city’s first water treatment plant, built in 1905, and played an important element in the city’s water supply system, preventing the spread of typhoid and other water-borne diseases.

It was built as a part of the 1902 McMillan Plan, which, under the guidance of Michigan Senator James McMillan and the United States Park Commission, sought to finish the vision of architect Pierre L’Enfant by bringing in such prominent designers associated with the “City Beautiful” movement as planner Daniel Burnham, architect Charles McKim, landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens. The site also served as one of the first de facto racially-integrated parks in the District.

Even today, over 60 years after the park was fenced off during World War II to protect the city’s water supply, if you stand at the center of its prominent vista, you’ll find a gorgeous view the National Basilica to the northeast, Howard University’s Independence Hall to the west, and the Capitol and  Washington monument to the south.

The site’s most prominent feature, the underground caverns where thousands of gallons of water were once stored, vary in condition from unusable to well-preserved. They are battered from 30 years of no maintenance, but some are arguably suitable for restoration and preservation. They are under any condition undeniably beautiful.

And so the McMillan Park Committee was formed, a group of about 10-12 Bloomingdale residents, holding weekly meetings in Vining’s living room, hoping to maintain the site as a park and avoid having it turned into a suburban-like shopping complex.

The committee won its first early battle when in 1991 the park was listed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites. This new historic landmark status all but threw out the city’s plans to build the shopping center, and has hindered many proposed plans since. And just this year, the park was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Through the ‘90s, the park sat largely still, with only faint talk of development. In 2000, though, the city began to feel out ideas. It turned to the architectural departments at Howard and Catholic Universities, both of which sit less than a mile away from the park, to come up with a design.

Catholic’s plan proposed that the majority of the above ground area remain open, with a small area of row houses built on the north end, an urban beach on the southeast end where the caverns were clearly irreparable, but with the majority of the development moved undergroundinto the remaining, usable caverns.

Miriam Gusevich, a professor of architecture at Catholic who worked on the original design and has since proposed an updated version, remembers the response by the neighborhood to the plan.

“There was a meeting where everyone came together and showed their ideas, and when people saw ours they got really excited,” she said.

The city was skeptical, particularly that the caverns’ unreinforced concrete was structurally sound enough to permit their new, adaptive re-use.

Gusevich denied this to be an issue. “The dome in the Pantheon of Rome is unreinforced concrete; it was built in 126 A.D and is still standing,” she said. She also argued there are tested products that can repair and add reinforcement to concrete installations at a low cost.

Nevertheless, the plan soon fell by the wayside, and shortly after, the land was given to the National Capital Revitalization Corporation (NCRC), a development agency created by the city, in a land swap deal involving riverfront property along the Anacostia and the construction of the Nationals baseball stadium.

By 2007, the city had dissolved the NCRC, reestablished control over the property, and quickly awarded the project to a team of developers, now known as Vision McMillan Park(VMP), to design new space for housing and retail on the site.


When word of the Vision McMillan Partner’s design plan got out, out too, came the old bystanders from the McMillan Park Committee, who have since changed their name to the more descriptive Friends of McMillan Park.

Along with Kirby Vining, Tony Norman, Darryl Jordan, and the rest, came an ever-enlarging group. Today, in addition to the hundreds of people who subscribe to their list-serve, Friends of McMillan Park has upwards of 20 of its members who do the group’s day-to-day work. They have held numerous town hall meetings, posted flyers, and even built a website — all to bring awareness to their cause.

Hugh Youngblood, an environmental engineer who served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner from between 2011 and 2012, was brought in by other commissioners in the neighborhood. “They would all talk about this place, and what they wanted to do to it, and I knew I had to get involved,” he says.

Professor Miriam Gusevich of Catholic University’s architecture department has updated her original plan and it has largely been adopted by the Friends as their vision for the park.

In it remains the small portion of housing and retail on the north side, the urban beach, and development underneath in the caverns. Added now is an ambitious underground community center which would include a swimming pool, wading pools, tennis and basketball courts, among other facilities.

In the past few months, the Friends have collected nearly 6,000 signatures on a petition asking that the city at least consider its alternative plan, but to this point there has been no response.

At the very least, most of the Friends are flexible in what they want for the site so long as it’s historical features are left intact.

At the recent National Capitol Planning Commission’s public meeting on September 25th, Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said in her remarks “We’re not proposing building on parks.” But in fact, as pointed out by Kirby Vining in an October 6th posting in TheMail which is published twice-weekly on, the city is planning to erect 13-story office buildings, among other [commercial and residential] structures on historic McMillan Park.”

At a town hall meeting at St. Martin’s church on September 14, 2013, John Salatti, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner who has been involved with the Friends since 2006, argued, “We’re not against all development. We’re just against the wrong kinds of development.”

The wrong kind would be the Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) plan, which would demolish the majority of the underground caverns in order to build town homes, an apartment building, a grocery store and other retail space.

To be fair, VMP, which has brought its plan before the Historic Preservation Board several times since it was awarded the site in 2007, though so far has failed to meet the board’s requirements, has made what seems to be a good faith effort to adjust its plans.

From its original plan, VMP has increased the size of the park, restored the Olmsted Walk on the outer border, added a recreation/community center, a garden, and water features.

As Tania Jackson, outreach coordinator for VMP points out, “The issue is that their plan (as they point out themselves) is a concept that is based on design ideas alone, done without study of the site or any engineering and condition reports.”

Indeed, the Friends have not conducted studies on either their plan’s cost nor feasibility. This omission could be the largest hindrance to potential for development.

John Salatti all but admitted the struggle: “The city is trying to get the train out of the station.  . . . We’re just trying to get the train not to leave the station.”


The writer, Mike Persley, a resident of the Bloomingdale neighborhood, is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago where he majored in political science, and is now studying for his Masters degree at the University of Maryland’s Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.

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Bowser to Meet with Friends of McMillan Park

Mayoral candidate Councilmember Muriel Bowser has agreed to meet with a delegation from Friends of McMillan Park (FOM) to hear the organization’s call for her to support preservation of McMillan Park.  The Friends delivered a formal meeting request on Thursday evening at the Bowser Ward 5 campaign kickoff that occurred in the heart of Bloomingdale on 1st and Bryant Streets, NW, just one block south of McMillan.

At the campaign event, a number of Bowser’s supporters signed the FOM petition to save McMillan Park, joining the more than 5,000 other signatories from across the District. Bowser, however, declined to sign it. Councilmember Jack Evans has signed the petition.

Bowser Campaign Event in Bloomingdale

During the upcoming meeting with Bowser, FOM plans to ask her to oppose Mayor Gray’s plan to surplus McMillan Park, to closely examine the unusual relationship between his Administration and its development consultant (Vision McMillan Partners), and to support an international design competition for the adaptive reuse of the historic Olmsted park.  FOM will also ask Bowser again to sign the petition.

Friends of McMillan Park Holds First Town Hall Meeting

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.

Ben Franklin at McMillan Park by Robert Sullivan

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:

Additional information:

Articles Show Music Once Played at McMillan Park

Washington Post, September 8, 1924: "Park Band Concerts For Week Announced"

Washington Post, September 8, 1924: “Park Band Concerts For Week Announced”

Although it functioned below-ground as a water filtration plant, above-ground McMillan Park was just that–an open green space with a playground, tennis courts, picnic areas, and a dance pavilion. Landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr. designed the site to be part of the “Emerald Necklace,” a chain of parks encircling Washington, DC along the high points of the city, primarily hilltops with extensive views that were suited as peaceful reprieves from bustling city life. Influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, Olmsted Jr. and the Senate Park Commission set out to create a comprehensive plan to preserve park space and provide for the recreation and health of the growing city.

Friends of McMillan Park recently unearthed some articles from the Washington Post documenting McMillan’s use as a concert venue in the 1920s. Of particular interest is the address mentioned in the articles–First and Channing Streets Northwest. While much of McMillan’s recreation activities happened on the west side of First Street, (where the reservoir is located) Channing Street is on the east side of First Street. Why does that matter? The 25-acre eastern portion of McMillan Park is the site that the Gray Administration wants to demolish and rebuild. Proponents of the Mayor Gray’s plan often claim that the site was never used as a park. Here is more clear evidence to the contrary.

Washington Post, July 20, 1924: "Sherrill Announces Concerts For Week"

Washington Post, July 20, 1924: “Sherrill Announces Concerts For Week”