Matt Bell (left) and Dennis Byrd listen to Bloomingdale residents outside Big Bear Cafe. Photo by the author.

While the discussion surrounding the future of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site has been polarized, there is actually plenty for everyone to agree on. A compromise is sure to emerge since few are happy with the site as it sits: unused and inaccessible. 

Unfortunately it took neighbors flatly rejecting the original proposal before planners went back to the drawing board. But the development team Vision McMillan Partners (VMP) has hired landscape architects Warren Byrd and Matt Bell to engage the community in a collaborative design process. This should result in a vision of a place that the neighborhood, the city, and perhaps even the nation, can be proud of.

Of course, there are a handful of people on either extreme. On one end of the spectrum is turning the entire parcel into a park; on the other is the construction of tall, densely packed buildings. But most of the people I spoke to, and who Byrd and Bell have heard from, fall somewhere in between.

Byrd and Bell hosted a series of “design salons,” at which their only goal was simply to listen to whoever came to share their ideas. They will formally present the findings from all of the salons to the community on Saturday, November 6th, at St. Martin’s Church at North Capitol and T Sts. NW. I attended the last salon of the series, held this past Monday evening at the Big Bear Cafe.

There is broad consensus that a significant chunk of the 25-acre rectangular parcel should be open greenspace. Many felt that a green corridor that welcomes pedestrians and cyclists should be the center of the new “village,” recreating the sense of contiguous green that was part of the McMillan Commission’s original vision. Most also feel that a mix of housing and retail is also desirable, but simultaneously don’t want to see something imposed upon the neighborhood that is out of keeping with the architecture and scale of its surroundings.


August 2010 satellite image of the site (Google Maps).

Bell and Byrd have heard a plethora of creative ideas, from having all the restaurants in the development use food grown on-site, to all sorts of uses for the cylindrical sand bins that sit there as remnants of the water purification plant. Many brought up the idea of daylighting a now-underground creek that flows across the site’s southeastern corner and making it a focal point of the new neighborhood.

Using a chunk of the site for solar power generation is another possibility. It is also likely that the project will make use of sustainably-sourced building materials and energy and water-saving design techniques.

VMP is still faced with the substantial task of allaying neighbors’ concerns about what the new facilities will bring to the area, primarily car traffic. Many development supporters insist that the project include improved transit service. While a planned Michigan Avenue streetcar line would connect the site with the Red Line at Brookland, the construction is likely to be finished well before streetcar service begins operation.

In the meantime, VMP could sponsor shuttle service to the Metro (a la the H Street Shuttle to Gallery Place and Minnesota Avenue Metros), and could offer incentives for bicycling, including bike valet service and a Capital Bikeshare station or two.  WMATA should also consider increasing the frequency of the 80 and H-series Metrobuses that serve the area. Of course, some additional parking will also be necessary, hopefully in the form of underground decks on the outer edges of the site.

I left the design salon with a high degree of confidence that something great will become of the long-dormant McMillan site. This process shows that an organized neighborhood that is willing to cooperate with developers and the city government can exert a positive influence on the shape of new development. The community’s involvement will almost surely be reflected in a place designed to complement and augment both its natural and human-made surroundings.

"It’s a site of potential national prominence that deserves a world-class development: something people are drawn to and inspired by,” said northern Bloomingdale resident and salon attendee Todd Crosby. “It can have retail and residential, but it should be a place for building community pride and city identity.”

Let us seek such a transformation of this unique property, incorporating the historic structures, resurrected creek, and future streetcar station into a model for durable design that effectively blends the public and the private and harmonizes buildings with the landscape.