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McMillan redevelopment plan clears major hurdle

(Vision McMillan Partners)
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There are miles to go before ground is broken, but plans for the redevelopment of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site took a significant step forward Thursday when plans won the provisional approval of the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

The site, at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW, functioned as a water-filtration plant until the 1980s and has been eyed for redevelopment almost since the day it closed. The most recent effort has been underway since 2006, when a city commission selected a group of developers known as Vision McMillan Partners to begin exploring redevelopment options. Under its current arrangement with the city, VMP is now embarking on the process of preparing the land for development in exchange for the first right to purchase the land once that “entitlement” process is complete.

Getting the preservation board’s assent has been a major hurdle, considering the 25-acre site’s status as a protected landmark, known for its dozens of underground filtration cells and alleys of ethereal brick ivy-covered sand towers. The VMP redevelopment plan — which includes parkland, rowhouses, apartments, retail and medical offices — preserves virtually all of the above-ground structures but would require demolishing most of the underground cells. It has been assailed, most vocally by a group known as Friends of McMillan Park, who believe the entire site, or at least a larger portion of it, should be preserved as recreational and cultural space.

The preservation board, voting 7-0 Thursday, recognized that the redevelopment plan will require “substantial demolition” — more on that in a moment — but found that the latest plan retains “important character-defining features of the site sufficient to convey its historic characteristics” and represents an “architecturally coordinated and cohesive approach.”

“It’s time for McMillan … to be of more use to the neighborhood and the city, and it’s time for it to be redeveloped,” said Graham Davidson, an architect who sits on the board.

But the Friends of McMillan Park activists say they will continue the fight against the redevelopment plan, and they will have many future opportunities to do so. Because the board found that “substantial demolition” will be necessary, a city official known as the “mayor’s agent” must determine that the development is a “project of special merit” that justifies the loss of historic assets. That process includes a public hearing where opponents can lodge objections, though it would be unusual if the mayor’s agent ultimately blocks a project that has been assembled with the backing and intimate participation of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s economic development team.

Because the property was federally owned until 1987, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will also have the opportunity to comment on the plan. VMP and the city consider this as a formality, while their opponents believe the council’s role can and should be substantial.

Beyond the historic preservation aspects, the land must be zoned by the D.C. Zoning Commission under the exhaustive planned unit development process, while the D.C. Council must pass a law declaring the land as “surplus” and transfer it to the developers. And once all of that is complete, the preservation board will undertake a final design review.

All of those processes will take months at the very least, and the Friends of McMillan Park have suggested they will not hesitate to take their arguments to the courts should the political and administrative processes fail them. While you wait, familiarize yourself with the plans through the rendering above and the animation below.