McMillan Sand Filtration Site (Claire Bedat/ASLA)

D.C. officials and civic boosters are blowing an opportunity at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site.

The cylindrical, ivy-covered storage bins on the fenced-off expanse along North Capitol Street evoke a city’s arcane past. Washingtonians could be forgiven for not knowing of the network of vaulted concrete sand filtration cells beneath those structures, where the city cleansed its drinking water for 80 years. Or that the site, a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by 19th-century engineers Montgomery C. Meigs and Allen Hazen, and urban planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., among others.

Even amateur urban planners know the grass-covered 25-acre site as little more than an eyesore in a gentrifying neighborhood ripe for economic growth. The water filtration site, named for Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.) and decommissioned in 1986, is destined for 2 million square feet of mixed-use development better suited for Reston or Tysons Corner.

Great cities embrace such places with an appreciation of their history and a vision for the future. The reimagining of obsolete infrastructure such as New York’s High Line, Chicago’s Millennium Park and Seattle’s Gas Works Park proves that lasting economic growth flows from incorporating the bones of a city into its emerging new self.

Olmsted believed that public space “would provide the most effective antidote to the debilitating artificiality of the built city and the stress of urban life,” writes author Charles Beveridge. He envisioned “a variety of different activities for groups of visitors, with no group or activity monopolizing any part of it.”

Not that McMillan, bordered by a reservoir, short blocks of rowhouses and a huge medical complex, should be off-limits for commerce. But preservation of open space is the most important function of urban planning and land use. Kevin Harrington, a professor emeritus of art history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, says the lines should be clear. Millennium Park’s art and performance spaces and public gardens offer an inspiring contrast to the apartments, hotels and restaurants that have sprung up along Michigan Avenue: “It says, ‘This is your place.’ It’s a recognition that Chicagoans have embraced. It’s a gift given to themselves.”

Millennium Park was never a park. According to D.C. developers and their proxies, including city officials and neighborhood commissioners, neither was McMillan. But that misses the point. How can it be adapted for modern use — aside from demolition and cookie-cutter development?

Process is the hard part, Harrington cautions. The struggle for control can be fierce. “Residents frequently are voiceless or of mixed voices,” he says. “It’s easy to peel them off and create the illusion of discussion, or manufacture a false alternative. You end up with a perception that deals are made in backrooms or expensive restaurants.”

Until last year, I knew nothing of McMillan’s historical significance or subterranean splendor. This is a truly unique D.C. place with cavernlike cells, acres of sand, haunting acoustics and beams of light shining down through missing or rusted-out manhole covers.

Mayor Marion Barry (D) once wanted to build a Kmart there. Grass-roots preservationists have fought for decades for something — anything — more than a suburban-style town center. Who are they fighting? Mayors have come and gone. The only constant is a no-bid contractor ironically named Vision McMillan Partners.

And it has powerful allies. And idle detractors. This year, in a series for a community newspaper, I wrote about an aberrant, taxpayer-funded entitlement process that has turned urban planning on its head. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has said the proposed development is inappropriate for a historic landmark. But Mendelson voted last year to approve disposition and demolition of the site and recently told the New York Times, “It’s too late to be unwinding that deal.”

Zoning appeals and litigation await. In May, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) inquired of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about her agency’s role in ensuring compliance with historical covenants in the deed to the property. And on July 10, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson asked Brian Kenner, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, to justify designation — without competitive solicitation — of Vision McMillan Partners as master developer and expenditure of millions of dollars in public funds to cover its pre-development costs.

City leaders are determined to see McMillan developed like NoMa or CityCenterDC. But without vision or respect for history, they put commerce before culture, which is not what great cities do.