Photo by the author.

The developers of DC’s McMillan Sand Filtration Site have listened to community concerns, from open space to traffic to transit, and created a plan for a new community that residents should one day see as a city landmark and a source of civic pride.

Envision McMillan released a revised plan in March for the long-awaited redevelopment that will transform the historic, off-limits site. It blends mixed-use office and apartment buildings with ground-floor retail, single-family townhomes, and open space to augment and enhance the surrounding neighborhoods.

As with all development plans of this scope, not everyone in the neighborhood is happy. While the current plan leaves 55% of the site as open space, some want the entire site to be a park. Others want to incorporate urban agriculture and renewable energy production, and a few want development limited to just a grocery store or public market, library and recreation center.

Residents in these camps concerned about development at the site have organized two groups, Friends of McMillan Park and Sustainable McMillan. The groups’ leaders claim that Envision McMillan virtually ignored the ideas community members presented in the various public listening sessions.

In fact, the team has significantly altered the plan based on community feedback. It now has much more open space, with 13.55 acres overall, including a 4-acre central park and 8 acres of large, public, open spaces. The team also added a grocery store, a library and a community center.

The plan mixes preservation and growth

Envision McMillan comprises 9 architecture, design, landscape architecture, and consulting firms selected as the site’s developer by the DC Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The District government bought the site from the federal government in 1987 and has sought to develop it ever since.

Conceptual plan for the site. Image from Envision McMillan.

The majority of the existing above-ground structures on the site would be retained and repurposed. The plan calls for preserving more than one of the underground sand filtration cells for visitors to explore. The historic McMillan Fountain, currently in storage at the adjacent federally-owned McMillan Reservoir, would sit in a prominent location in a public plaza on the site.

The southern row of cylindrical sand silos would form the border between the project’s central park and a cluster of row houses, which would match the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood. Stormwater runoff from the site would be completely captured on site by using state-of-the-art runoff management techniques.

Envision McMillan seeks to draw a grocery store and an eclectic mix of local retailers. Developers hope to create approximately 4,000 jobs at all levels as part of new healthcare office space on the northern end (adjacent to the VA hospital and Washington Hospital Center).

Additionally, the city plans to sponsor job-training programs to help District residents qualify for these jobs. 100 housing units will be designated as “affordable senior housing,” and a mix of workforce and market-rate housing will be available throughout the site.

The team responds to community concerns

The next step for Envision McMillan and project supporters is to win the public-relations battle by convincing residents of the area, and the entire city, that the current plans represent the most appropriate balance of competing community needs and desires.

Traffic has been a central area of concern for nearby residents. First Street NW, in particular, is often bumper-to-bumper at rush hours between Michigan and New York Avenues, and Bloomingdale residents fear this will get worse once new homes, offices, and shops open up at McMillan. Envision McMillan analyzed current traffic to help create a plan to efficiently move people to and from the site, both by car and by other modes.

The study showed that there are no safe pedestrian crossings of North Capitol Street between Michigan Avenue and Channing Street. The restrictions on left turns from North Capitol onto Michigan from both directions cause more traffic to flow onto neighborhood streets. Cut-through traffic also overtaxes the alleys in the neighboring Stronghold neighborhood.

Envision McMillan’s traffic plan calls for building 2 new through streets across the site from North Capitol to First NW, reducing traffic flow on existing neighborhood streets. It also recommends 2 new signalized intersections along North Capitol, and widening the North Capitol and Michigan Avenue intersection. Almost all of the parking on the site would be below ground.

But perhaps more importantly, the plan would enhance access to the site by non-automobile modes, thereby reducing the number of cars that will have to move through the surrounding neighborhoods. It proposes a transit hub on the north end with frequent Circulator buses connecting to the Brookland Metro station, a hiker-biker trail along North Capitol for the length of the site, several new sidewalks, and two Capital Bikeshare stations on the site — one near the grocery store and one in the middle of the mixed-use medical office/retail complex.

Yes, the surrounding neighborhood will feel growing pains as new residents, shoppers, and medical clinic patients move in. But maintaining the site as it is, empty and off-limits to the public, benefits nobody.

The only viable alternative to the status quo is some form of development. Putting this residential and business development in an urban neighborhood where people can take advantage of existing infrastructure at modest incremental cost makes the most economic and environmental sense. The long-term benefits to the region of developing the site in a conscientious way far outweigh the short-term costs.

Envision McMillan has proposed a plan for intelligent development and adapted it around reasonable concerns from the community. The plan will create a desirable place to live, work, and shop that retains both the character of the neighborhood and the uniqueness of this historic site.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.