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At McMillan site, compromise could be beautiful

While the discussion surrounding the future of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has been polarized, there is actually plenty for everyone to agree on. A compromise is sure to emerge since few are happy with the site as it sits: unused and inaccessible.

Matt Bell (left) and Dennis Byrd listen to Bloomingdale residents outside Big Bear Cafe. Photo by the author.

Unfortunately it took neighbors flatly rejecting the original proposal before planners went back to the drawing board. But the development team Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) has hired landscape architects Warren Byrd and Matt Bell to engage the community in a collaborative design process. This should result in a vision of a place that the neighborhood, the city, and perhaps even the nation, can be proud of.

Of course, there are a handful of people on either extreme. On one end of the spectrum is turning the entire parcel into a park; on the other is the construction of tall, densely packed buildings. But most of the people I spoke to, and who Byrd and Bell have heard from, fall somewhere in between.

Byrd and Bell hosted a series of "design salons," at which their only goal was simply to listen to whoever came to share their ideas. They will formally present the findings from all of the salons to the community on Saturday, November 6th, at St. Martin's Church at North Capitol and T Sts. NW. I attended the last salon of the series, held this past Monday evening at the Big Bear Cafe.

There is broad consensus that a significant chunk of the 25-acre rectangular parcel should be open greenspace. Many felt that a green corridor that welcomes pedestrians and cyclists should be the center of the new "village," recreating the sense of contiguous green that was part of the McMillan Commission's original vision. Most also feel that a mix of housing and retail is also desirable, but simultaneously don't want to see something imposed upon the neighborhood that is out of keeping with the architecture and scale of its surroundings.

August 2010 satellite image of the site (Google Maps).
Bell and Byrd have heard a plethora of creative ideas, from having all the restaurants in the development use food grown on-site, to all sorts of uses for the cylindrical sand bins that sit there as remnants of the water purification plant. Many brought up the idea of daylighting a now-underground creek that flows across the site's southeastern corner and making it a focal point of the new neighborhood.

Using a chunk of the site for solar power generation is another possibility. It is also likely that the project will make use of sustainably-sourced building materials and energy and water-saving design techniques.

VMP is still faced with the substantial task of allaying neighbors' concerns about what the new facilities will bring to the area, primarily car traffic. Many development supporters insist that the project include improved transit service. While a planned Michigan Avenue streetcar line would connect the site with the Red Line at Brookland, the construction is likely to be finished well before streetcar service begins operation.

In the meantime, VMP could sponsor shuttle service to the Metro (a la the H Street Shuttle to Gallery Place and Minnesota Avenue Metros), and could offer incentives for bicycling, including bike valet service and a Capital Bikeshare station or two. WMATA should also consider increasing the frequency of the 80 and H-series Metrobuses that serve the area. Of course, some additional parking will also be necessary, hopefully in the form of underground decks on the outer edges of the site.

I left the design salon with a high degree of confidence that something great will become of the long-dormant McMillan site. This process shows that an organized neighborhood that is willing to cooperate with developers and the city government can exert a positive influence on the shape of new development. The community's involvement will almost surely be reflected in a place designed to complement and augment both its natural and human-made surroundings.

"It's a site of potential national prominence that deserves a world-class development: something people are drawn to and inspired by," said northern Bloomingdale resident and salon attendee Todd Crosby. "It can have retail and residential, but it should be a place for building community pride and city identity."

Let us seek such a transformation of this unique property, incorporating the historic structures, resurrected creek, and future streetcar station into a model for durable design that effectively blends the public and the private and harmonizes buildings with the landscape.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DCs NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College, he is a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable transportation and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own. 


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Do you know if there has been any feedback from the Howard or Catholic U communities, because I could imagine there being an interest from students wanting to live there?

by anonymous on Oct 29, 2010 1:21 pm • linkreport

Has anyone ever explained hiw that Michigan Ave streetcar will work? From the map, it appears to run in both directions on Columbia, which is currently one way.

by jcm on Oct 29, 2010 1:25 pm • linkreport

I think it is interesting to see that the author uses the term extreme to describe those of us who would like the site to be a park.

The site, once upon a time, was a park -- as was the property across the street which is now fenced in. I would love for the entire site to be a park. Yes, it would cost a lot of money, that is definately true, but, it would be an amazing gift to the future. Today in the Washington Post they reported that the security industry has reached an $80 billion annual cost to taxpayers -- when you put the cost of a McMillan park in context to the amount of cash that flows through a government, the cost of making McMillan a park is not insurmountable.

Once upon a time the National Parks were not parks. Try and imagine DC without Rock Creek! People had a vision to protect and perserve these properties for future generations. It was major finanical investment by the citizens and leadership each time the decision was made to create a park. I am grateful that those decisions were made, that people spoke up and garnered political support to protect the natural world.

It isn't extreme to support a park, it is just a different priority, a desire to use public land for a different purpose and a willingness to spend tax dollars to do it.

While you may not agree that the whole site should be a park, I hope you will reconsider using the word extreme when describing those of us who suppport a park.

by Rene on Oct 29, 2010 2:46 pm • linkreport

I live on the other side of the reservoir in Park View. And what I've never understood about the McMillan site debate is the concern about "the architecture and scale of its surroundings."

For the several dozen townhouses along North Capitol and Channing Streets, it seems it would be relatively easy to front the development with townhouses or low 2-4 story buildings that are then stepped up to larger buildings.

Other than that, you have to the west a reservoir protected by barbed-wire fences. To the north, an assortment of anti-urban hospital complexes with as many architectural styles as buildings. Catty-corner you have the Cloisters, protected from its surroundings by fences. And behind the neighborhood of townhouses on North Capitol - sometimes only one house deep - you have two very large cemeteries and suburban-style college campuses.

Given its near-isolation, it seems that for the development to be successful there would need to be a fair number of people working, living and/or shopping there. And it would help developers pay for things like shuttles to Metro stations, accelerated streetcar plans, or open space if they were able to build more densely.

I wish I'd been free to attend one of the salons. I would have liked to hear first hand how "retail and residential" need to be qualified by "building community pride and city identity." It seems to me that - in the middle of the city - shops, homes and offices should be more than incidental concessions to a project of this magnitude.

by Patrick on Oct 29, 2010 3:08 pm • linkreport

Let us seek such a transformation of this unique property, incorporating the historic structures, resurrected creek, and future streetcar station into a model for durable design that effectively blends the public and the private and harmonizes buildings with the landscape.

"Move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom."

MacMillan was and is a job for serious city planners with a commitment to urbanism who have actual vision for the next 50 years. Now, unless "the community" attending these "salons" have any background in that kind of thing, it's hard to say what kind of help they're going to be.

A park isn't actually a bad idea in a city, like DC, that has few open-area urban parks in the model of central park, but all too often, "park" in this town is synonymous with "public safety hazard."

by JustMe on Oct 29, 2010 3:22 pm • linkreport

Given some of the community listserv flame wars going on about the McMillan development - and how it's a contentious issue in some ANC races - I predict that no solution will be acceptable to any majority of factions involved.

by Fritz on Oct 29, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

Gee, I wonder why no one is hearing from the "extremists" who want to see the original plans for this parcel fulfilled. Could it be that people who have something to gain from developing it (whether a fat paycheck or a new stroller-friendly coffee shop) have not only louder voices, but plenty of allies to amplify them?

I would like to see a plaque erected with the name of every single person who pushes for this development, so that 50 years from now future DC inhabitants and visitors will know just who was responsible for destroying this unique, irreplaceable piece of history (and undeveloped space).

I can't imagine anyone seriously believes future generations will say, "Thank god they put condos, office space, and retail here!" Nope, instead they'll say, "They were too cheap to preserve it, and too greedy to leave it alone. One generation had to gobble it all up."

Yes, I know the collapse of the real estate market left developistas with acute vasocongestion. But relieving that ailment is not the responsibility of taxpayers. They can deal with it privately ... or better yet, just wait. In time, they will detumesce.

by klee on Oct 29, 2010 3:45 pm • linkreport

I have attended both salons, and I am a member of the MAG, and have attended most of the public meetings where plans have been put forth for review by all. I firmly believe a viable plan will emerge for the site and I have stood by a multi use plan in which 1/3 is park/green/open/public space, 1/3 residential and 1/3 commercial. I have request that we have integrated independent senior apartments weaved into the townhouse plans, an interactive exhibit like the post office museum geared towards children for part of the historical preservation component, assisted living facility, a 1st class grocer, along with much need service orientated retail.

Traffic concerns need to be addressed and I have urged CM Graham, CM Thomas, and Chair Gray to move phase 3 of the streetcars which is Brookland, up on the list to phase 2. WHC is the 3rd most visited place in DC with over 80,000 people going there daily.

As for the PARK, the sand site was never a park! ItÂ’s been called a park but it is an industrial site covered by grass that the public has never ever has access to. It is covered by 2100 manhole covers and was originally cut off by prickly bushes, then after WWII was surrounded by a fence. Now it's nice to have parks and I am all for reserving 1/3 of the space for that purpose. But spending $80 million on a 25 acre park in DC is not financially responsible. DC has great green space for comparable metro cities in the US.

But here are a few stats on DC parks.

Total Park space 7,617 acres
Total land in DC 39296
Ratio 19.4% is park land ranking DC #2 in densely populated cities
Population of DC 591,833
12.9 acres of parkland per 1000 residents -- Ranking #2
103 play grounds in DC -- 1.7 per 10,000 residents
$153,324,830 spent on parklands per year $259 per person
$139,066,961 spent on park operations per yr. $235 per person
70 Recreation centers -- 2.4 per 20,000 residents
36 swimming pools -- 6.1 per 100,000 residents
15th oldest park in the US -- National Mall 1790
19th oldest park in the US -- Lafayette Sqr. 1804
9th most visited park -- Nation Mall - 10 million visitors
39th most visited park -- Rock Creek Park - 2 million visitors

So letÂ’s be real and practical when we speak about the long awaited development of McMillan. The city invested 9.3 million 30 years ago, itÂ’s cost about $200,000 a year to maintain the parcel, and we have gotten nothing in return for the last 30 years.

I encourage everyone in the area of the site to come out on Nov 6th to the meeting so you too can weight in on the plans.

by Barrie Daneker on Oct 29, 2010 3:57 pm • linkreport

Your stats are intentionally misleading. Obviously with the Mall and Rock Creek you can basically say anything you want with green space compared to the whole.

How much empty retail space is there in the neighborhood in direct proximity to the McMillan Site? How much green space per person is there for the people in the neighborhood in direct proximity to the McMillan Site?

In case you missed it, the issues confronting your community arent the same as someone in say Woodley Park.

by to barrie on Oct 29, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

KLee: "Detumesce"? Really? Is that what passes for dialogue for you?

For better or worse, this is an urban site. The truly environmental position is incorporating it into a denser, more urban city that is smaller regionally.

As for the parkland that our city needs generally and our neighborhood needs particularly, the real solution is find a way to tear down the fences around the Reservoir and the Soldiers' Home, and to activate those spaces so that DC residents can enjoy them again. We've already got plenty of green in our part of the city, it's just that none of it is useful.

by Patrick on Oct 29, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

Patrick: Good idea to try obtain more usable green space in the vicinity of the sand filtration site.

But the reality is that the federal government, which owns the actual reservoir site next door, is * never * going to shrink the perimeter of the existing fence around the reservoir.

Good idea, but dead on arrival.

Never going to happen.

The reservoir fence will stay where it is.

by Scott Roberts on Oct 29, 2010 5:19 pm • linkreport

I always thought some kind of subterranean retail with a park on top would be the best use. That way its character could be retained. Everything in DC is so benign and uninspired from the Nats Park to the proposed Convention Center hotel. We need something unique. Here is a great opportunity.

by Sivad on Oct 30, 2010 12:24 am • linkreport

Underground retail would be a mistake at that site, especially with no walking distance metro stop and not an incredibly dense residential area. Combine that with the relatively hostile north capitol st. and the resevoir/university to the west then all you would have is a bunch of empty retail space underground. No a mix of residential/retail on the eastern half would help calm N. Capitol street while the eastern half along 1st street could by programmed into a park/extra pathfinding network for pedestrians/cyclists trying to go from NE to NW

by Canaan on Oct 30, 2010 12:36 am • linkreport

A portion of the sand filtration site should be preserved as a park because it's a fascinating, unique feature. Building enough residential and commercial is also important to create some vitality, a destination, a place for hospital visitors to go should be a big priority. I've ridden my bike across this area - it's a blank space between destinations. I have avoided using the Washington Hospital Center because of its suburban isolated design and vacant surroundings. Getting the right balance of a great park featuring the sand filtration cylinders with sufficient activity to create a destination is essential. Without enough retail and enough people living here, this area will remain a gulf between Park View and Brookland.

by ccort on Oct 30, 2010 10:57 am • linkreport

To be fair, it is currently a dead space between Park View and Stronghold and Edgewood. Brookland itself is another 10 blocks east from there on the other side of the metro tracks.

But most people aren't particularly aware of those neighborhoods because there isn't much of anything going on in terms of amenities. I think setting up some of the site as parkland is a good idea, but bringing some vitality to the area with some more retail or cultural amenities would be a boon to the area.

Oh, and I would also love to see the Michigan and Rhode Island Ave. streetcars pushed forward with some of the money from whoever develops the parcel. That would certainly benefit all area residents. But that may be a pipe dream.

by J on Oct 31, 2010 6:23 pm • linkreport

I agree that calling people extreme that want to preserve this setting as a park is wrong. This is not a normal piece of open land - it is a historic site with much to consider.

That said, there is a need to grow the city and the entire site doesn't necessarily need remain open space. The goal should be to instead create a great park for the city but one that is enhanced and that enhances upon the development of both commercial and housing. Urban parks are made great by their great surroundings, and vice versa.

In any event, when one looks at all the parking garages and open land surrounding this site to the north, it does ask the question of whether the McMillan development can be succssful without considering how these site can develop in the future as well, in a pro-walkable, urban neighborhood way. There is not real driver for a restaurant or other business to locate in this development.

by neb on Oct 31, 2010 10:08 pm • linkreport

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