What to Do With What Lies Beneath?

The arches that form the catacombs beneath the McMillan Reservoir were crafted from unreinforced concrete, which means they couldn't support construction above them.
The arches that form the catacombs beneath the McMillan Reservoir were crafted from unreinforced concrete, which means they couldn't support construction above them. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

High on a hill in a crowded city, 25 acres sit empty -- green grass rustling in the spring breeze. The McMillan Reservoir in the north central section of the District is one of the largest undeveloped tracts in a capital invaded by convoys of construction cranes.

The reason lies beneath the grass.

Below ground are 22 massive catacombs built from concrete that formed the city's main water filtration system at the turn of the last century. Potomac River water, fresh from Great Falls, arrived at the plant and was filtered through underground cells lined with sand dumped by mule-drawn wagons. Clean water emerged and was piped into homes across the city, including the White House.

It worked for generations, until a new and faster filtration system was built across the street. In 1985, the water stopped flowing to McMillan.

Ever since, the reservoir has sat empty and padlocked, as city officials have pondered what to do with it. Planners have talked about residences, shops and maybe a museum. Several groups, including an organization trying to erect a memorial for dogs that have died in wars, want the space for a national monument. Residents say the reservoir should return to its early use as a park.

Last month, the city turned over the land to the National Capital Revitalization Corp. a quasi-public agency that develops public land in the District.

"It's really amazing," said Kevin Warner, an executive with the revitalization corporation, who estimates development will take place in stages over the next 15 years. "It's big enough. You can have all sorts of services, residential, open space, parks. It's like building a new neighborhood within the city."

Corporation officials plan to announce their intentions for McMillan by the end of June and are likely to seek proposals from developers who want to work alongside the corporation in a joint development. The land, once developed, could be worth $1 billion or more, Warner said.

Passersby don't know what to make of the property in its current state. It looks like flat farmland, studded by 20 brick silos that once stored sand for the filtration. Several old pump houses, the glass long blown out of their windows, sit silently. Some of the catacombs have collapsed, but others give a sense of a great subterranean world, where shafts of daylight stream down from manholes in the grass above and cast ribbons of white on sand that still lines the floor. In the quiet, one can imagine the sound of water lapping against the concrete columns that support the catacomb and form archways every 12 feet.

The entire park was awarded D.C. historic landmark status in 1991.

"Any development proposed for the site would have many hurdles to jump in order to get approval," said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. It is unclear which structures must be preserved and which could be converted to new uses. The arches that form the underground catacombs were crafted from unreinforced concrete, which means they couldn't support construction above them. The property has no water, sewer, electricity or roads -- all would have to be installed.

"It's a tough site," said Natalie Bock of the Alexander Co., a Wisconsin firm that specializes in developing historic properties. The catacombs add to development costs, she said. "You can't build on top of them. Can you dig them out? All of that is cost, but it doesn't increase the value. As for the silos, how do they lay out for a dwelling? Having acres in Washington, D.C., helps, but we look at how efficiently we could adapt the buildings that exist to a new use."

Despite challenges, the reservoir holds great allure, and potential profit, for builders. It is located on high ground, with sweeping views of the Capitol and the Potomac River to the south and the round National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the north. Bordered by North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW, the land sits in a prime location. It is unzoned -- a veritable blank slate. And it is surrounded by Howard and Catholic universities, Children's Hospital and Washington Medical Center, making the location ideal for a hotel or conference center.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) agreed to give the reservoir to the corporation as part of a land swap among the city's development agencies. The revitalization corporation gave up control of about 45 acres in Southwest to the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. in exchange for about $25 million worth of city-owned land, $25 million in cash and the right to develop McMillan Reservoir.

At least one community group is worried about the revitalization corporation's exclusive rights to develop the reservoir.

"The sole purpose of the NCRC is economic development. They are not designed to do anything historic or creative," said Tony Norman, chairman of the McMillan Park Committee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preservation of the reservoir. "They're going to try and maximize the developer profits. And that means luxury condominiums. . . . Would you turn over your prize horse to a developer who makes food out of horses?"

"This property will wind up in court if the city stays on this course," said Norman, whose group successfully sued the city once before to stop development of the reservoir.

McMillan is a testament to late 19th-century engineering and public works design. But it was also once a great public space. With grounds planned by Frederick Law Olmstead's son, the reservoir served as a park at the beginning of the last century. On hot summer nights, residents slept on the grassy banks, tickled by balmy breezes. The federal government closed the reservoir to the public permanently because of security concerns during World War II.

Anthony Freeman, chief executive of the revitalization corporation, said the reservoir will be reopened to the public no matter the type of development that takes place. "We don't want to rethink what the community wants," he said. "In meetings over the last 10 years, the community has said it wants open space, and we hear that. We have a great canvas to serve the needs of the community."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company