The InTowner: Why Should We Care About a Disused Drinking Water Filtration Plant?

Three Towers at McMillan Park

The InTowner published the following article from their Publisher’s Desk on August 10, 2013.

We care because the McMillan Park Reservoir Sand Filtration site is truly historic and important to the city’s history. It includes the mid-1880s-built reservoir, the 1905-built sand filtration plant –- DC’s first water treatment facility which was considered state-of-the art at the time — and the extensive park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that was completed in 1913, which includes the reservoir proper as well as the McMillan memorial fountain that had been designed by architect Charles Platt and sculptor Henry Adams. Olmsted had conceived the park as a memorial to Senator James McMillan who steered the creation of the so-called “City Beautiful” plan that is credited with having effectively fulfilled Pierre L’Enfant’s vision for our city.

The reservoir is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as the DC Registry. In addition, the sand filtration site has been listed four times on the DC Preservation League’s list of most endangered historic places.

There is a very large and diverse group of neighborhood residents, community activists, and preservationists who, through the Friends of McMillan Park organization, are working tirelessly to ensure the preservation not only of the park site itself but of the historically significant filtration and treatment plant buildings also. As noted in the application filed by the DC Historic Preservation Office for inclusion in the National Register (, the “sand filtration plant with [its] associated buildings and structures, present an architecturally cohesive engineering complex in which the majority of the historic buildings constructed as part of the development of the reservoir/filtration plant survive intact.”

So why all this community commotion? We’ll let the Friends group answer the question:

“DC Mayor Vincent C. Gray seems unaware of the widespread opposition to his plan to overdevelop the McMillan Park Sand Filtration Site and turn it into a suburban-like shopping center reminiscent of Tyson’s Corner. Specifically, last Friday [August 2nd], in response to a listener question on The Kojo Nnamdi Show (The Politics Hour), the Mayor said: ‘I’ve followed McMillan and I haven’t seen thousands of people who have indicated a resistance to [the plan], or overwhelmingly come forward saying we want to see parks at McMillan.’

“This statement ignores the widely publicized petition signed by over 5,200 people against the Gray Administration’s plan to destroy McMillan Park, a local and national historic landmark. Friends of McMillan Park has presented the petitions to the DC Council and to the Historic Preservation Review Board, and informed the Mayor’s office of these actions. The Mayor is also apparently unaware of the overwhelming opposition to declaring the site ‘surplus’ public real estate expressed at a recent meeting called by his Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Either his staff is keeping him in the dark or he is deliberately ignoring the thousands of signatories.”

We agree with those 5,200 persons who have signed that petition and join with the Friends group in reject the plan to give away the site to developers who will fill it up with commercial and residential high-rise buildings. We agree with the Friends group that this plan “must be replaced by a new vision for McMillan Park . . . a plan that re-opens our grand city park, stabilizes our neighborhoods, and stimulates businesses that are integrated into the historic structures at McMillan and invested in and co-exist within our community.”

What the Friends group and those who signed the petition are calling for is the preservation and adaptive reuse of park’s “historic resources, especially its majestic underground sand filtration caverns. The Mayor’s plan would sacrifice all but one of the existing 20 unique vaulted one-acre caverns, offers little affordable housing, lacks any plan for reusing the above or below ground structures, and excludes any effective strategies for managing the significant increase in traffic that would cripple the surrounding neighborhoods.”

This vision, as summarized above, makes complete sense to us and we strongly urge the Office of Planning and the Mayor to reverse the course they seem so earnest in pursuing. The well-being of the developer community should not trump the well-being of the residents.

There is, apparently, still time to fight for a better plan. The Friends group will be holding a Town Hall meeting on Saturday afternoon, September 14th, from 3:00 to 5:00 pm at St. Martin’s Pioneer Room (1908 N. Capitol St., NW). The Gray Administration’s plan to privatize and demolish the historic structures and re-purpose the park as well as creative alternatives will be discussed. For background and to become fully apprised of the issues or to sign the petition to save the park, visit

Leave a Reply