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Demolition Begins at McMillan Park as Opposition Groups Prepare for Legal Battle; Outcome Uncertain

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the September 2019 issue pdf

By William G. Schulz

Demolition appears to be underway for the fiercely contested redevelopment of the McMillan Park historic site located between North Capitol and First Streets, NW and Michigan Avenue at the north end and Channing Street at the south. A demolition permit was issued on August 16th, and heavy equipment began arriving at the site shortly thereafter.

Alerted by activists long opposed to the redevelopment project that demolition appeared to be underway, The InTowner visited McMillan Park. On September 5th, this reporter witnessed and photographed a backhoe removing soil from an area atop some of the former sand filtration tower’s massive underground caverns at the northern end of the 25-acre park. A dump truck collected and removed the excavated soil from park grounds.

According to Kirby Vining of redevelopment opposition group Friends of McMillan Park (FOMP), this activity inside the National Historic Landmark is prohibited by a DC Court of Appeals decision handed down in May. The Court’s conditions before any demolition could begin, he says, include resolution of an ongoing appeal of a DC Zoning Commission decision for the McMillan development site.

The Appeals Court decision states that “as long as legal obstacles to the completion of the entire project remain, demolition of historic structures on the Filtration Complex will not be consistent with the purposes of the Historic Preservation Act. One remaining legal obstacle is the ongoing appeal of the Zoning Commission’s approval of the PUD application for the project. Until that appeal and any other obstacles to the applicants’ ability to complete the project are resolved, the applicants may not commence demolition.” [Emphasis supplied.]

Vining says his group plans, possibly AS SOON s the week of September 8th, to file in DC Superior Court for an injunction to stop the demolition activity. Other activists opposed to the McMillan project have staged protests and fired off letters to city officials, but it is unclear if they will also be seeking injunctions.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) told The InTowner that “[t]he District is testing the means and methods of construction activity to ensure the historic resources are protected; the District has all necessary approvals in place to perform this work.” But Vining takes exception:

“DMPED says that what we’re seeing is not demolition activity but pre-demolition testing. Well, a 20-foot section of a wall has been removed from an historic site and right now a backhoe is scraping dirt off the surface of an historic site. Those activities, we allege, are not consistent with the court’s order.”

Because it is illegal for anyone except construction workers and authorized officials to enter the site, and because the construction activity was yards away from the park’s fence line, The InTowner could not confirm Vining’s allegation that a wall was being removed.

The DMPED spokesperson countered, “The District has not removed any portion of the portal walls. In 2013, DC Water was permitted to remove a portion of the wall for its work on the McMillan Site as part of its Clean Rivers Project, which was approved by the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation. Furthermore, the District has not demolished any contributing historic structures.”

Mothballed and fenced off for decades (some contend, in part due to racism by U.S. government officials in the years following World War II), the 25-acre site is a still largely intact, with its sand-filtration water purification plant considered a marvel of 19th Century engineering. And though no one has been able to visit or walk around the historic landmark for as long as most residents can remember, McMillan Park is nonetheless beloved green space in one of DC’s most historically significant neighborhoods.

The underground caverns at McMillan were storage areas for purified water after it had poured through the site’s above-ground filtration towers. Developer Vision McMillan Partners plans to demolish most of these above- and below-ground structures except for a few that will be left as part of an explanatory history exhibit. The mixed-use redevelopment project would leave substantial acreage as parkland.

But for the remaining appeal on zoning for the site, the project has won all necessary approvals and survived several court challenges.

[Editor’s Note: The McMillan site is one of great importance to the residents of the Bloomingdale neighborhood in which it is located as being the area’s only true open green space which needs to be protected. So also is it similarly valuerd by the residents of the Stronghold neighborhood immediately east across North Capitol Street in Northeast.]

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & William G. Schulz. All rights reserved.

Reader Comment

I’d like to send one comment with respect to your September article on the McMillan site. Under an Editor’s Note you state: “The McMillan site is one of great importance to the residents of the Bloomingdale neighborhood in which it is located as being the only true green space which needs to be protected.” I would argue that statement is at a minimum, misleading, and potentially false. The residents of Bloomingdale all see value in the McMillan site but for different reasons. To imply that everyone in Bloomingdale wants the entire site to either be left untouched and unavailable to anyone, or redeveloped into a useable park, is wrong. There is an equally large contingent of people who want to see the site redeveloped  with new homes, businesses, a community center, and yes, even green space. And then there are those all along the spectrum in between. Please refrain from making sweeping generalizations about the entire community until you have the data and facts to support them.

Ken Kriese / Bloomingdale

Editor’s Note: The writer’s admonition regarding my inserted editor’s note does have a certain validity; I should have phrased it in a way that would not have implied a universal truth.