McMillan plan combines preservation, urban design and inventive architecture


View from North Capitol Street looking west toward the park, community center pavilion and pedestrain service courtyard crossing the site. (Perkins Eastman)
August 1

The fate of the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant has been the subject of heated controversy ever since the federal government closed the water purification facility in 1986 and sold the 25-acre site to the District of Columbia. During the years, dramatically differing opinions and ideas for transforming McMillan have led to multiple contrasting plans for the site.

But next month the destiny of the historically landmarked McMillan site may be determined and the disputes rendered moot. The D.C. Zoning Commission is reviewing the latest plan (www.envisionmcmillan.com), a well-conceived, pragmatic work of urban design and architecture.

The ongoing controversy has pitted two camps against each other. One camp strongly believes that most if not all of the site should be a city park. The other camp strongly favors blended use of the site — relatively intense real estate development coupled with a fair amount of open space.

Disagreement was inevitable, given the site’s history, location and visibility. Bounded on the east by North Capitol Street and on the north by Michigan Avenue NW, the McMillan site is directly across Michigan Avenue from the Washington Hospital Center and Veterans Affairs hospital complex. A few blocks east along Michigan Avenue are Trinity College, Catholic University and the Red line’s Brookland Metro station.

The proposed makeover plan strikes appropriate balances between historic preservation and new development as well as between public policy goals, community needs and real estate interests. A large team of developers, urban planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers and other specialized consultants produced the plan through a collaborative process entailing years of community meetings.


(Roger K. Lewis)

Merging old and new, the plan envisions mixed uses with density gradation from low to high, plus numerous landscaped spaces and passageways wisely deployed across the sustainably developed site. In fact, almost two-thirds of the site will be parks, rain gardens, circulation spaces and service courtyards open to the sky. Thus, making the entire 25-acre site a public park is not only unnecessary, it would sacrifice the many benefits of fruitfully combining new workplace, dwelling and recreational opportunities with preservable pieces of history.

Between 1907 and 1911, shortly after the 92-acre McMillan reservoir and filtration plant were built, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was hired to beautify the entire complex. He designed a public park surrounding the reservoir and a tree-lined promenade — known as the Olmsted Walk — around the filtration plant’s perimeter. But these originally accessible, landscaped spaces were fenced off and permanently closed to the public during World War II. For security reasons, the reservoir must remain fenced and inaccessible. However, the Olmsted Walk can and will be reestablished.

Portions of defining but deteriorating historic elements will be preserved to become integral aesthetic components of the new parks, pedestrian promenades and access drives. Two underground sand-filtration cells — vaults constructed of unreinforced concrete — will be structurally stabilized, as will all 24 of the cylindrical sand storage bins and four regulator houses visible atop the existing, elevated site, referred to as a plinth. Also the grass-covered embankments along the site’s distinctive perimeter will remain.

Spanning the rectangular site’s southern third, adjacent to rowhouse-lined Channing Street, will be an eight-acre “Central Park.” Its 6.2 acres of open green space encompass a 17,000-square-foot community center housed in a transparent glass pavilion. The pavilion will contain a swimming pool, fitness center, multipurpose rooms and gallery space. Both the park and community center will serve the surrounding neighborhoods as well as McMillan residents.

North of the park, occupying more than a third of the site, will be middle-density residential buildings designed for diverse income levels: 146 townhouses, 15 percent of which will be priced below prevailing fair-market rates; and 520 apartments, of which more than 100 will be deemed affordable.

The highest density and tallest buildings will be situated appropriately in the site’s northern quadrant along Michigan Avenue. Programmed for this area are one million square feet of healthcare-oriented facilities and office space; a 50,000 square-foot grocery store; and 30,000 square feet of neighborhood-serving retail shops and restaurants. Basement parking garages eliminate the need for surface parking lots.

Among the most remarkable attributes of the McMillan development currently envisioned will be its modernist architectural language. To achieve a degree of aesthetic unity throughout the development, amazingly several talented architecture firms agreed to design their respective buildings using shared compositional themes and materials.

Facades will be white with charcoal-gray window frames and natural wood accents. Employing brick, stone, terra-cotta, concrete or metal, each building’s exterior composition will be somewhat unique yet will relate visually to other buildings. Well known precedents for a unified architectural approach exist — the Federal Triangle and Greenbelt, both dating from the 1930s, come to mind.

Clearly, the plan for the McMillan site is much more than a conventional, two-dimensional mapping of land uses. It is a thoughtfully considered, multi-dimensional work successfully marrying historic preservation, creative urban design and inventive architecture, all benefitting the public. Already given a thumbs-up by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, this ambitious plan deserves the Zoning Commission’s approval.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. His cartoon may be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/realestate.

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