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McMillan reservoir battle brewing

(Published September 4, 2000)

By KATE ALEXANDER

Staff Writer

After two public meetings to try to decide the fate of the former McMillan reservoir site on North Capitol Street, some residents are preparing to battle what they perceive as the city’s desire to build commercial and residential buildings there. And they feel the city’s planning office is not taking seriously their ideas for preserving the site as green space.

Tony Norman, chairman of the McMillan Park Committee and the citizen representative for Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, at the planning workshops, said neighboring residents want to preserve the site as green space but feel their views were omitted from the process at the latest meeting on Aug. 26.

Norman said the Office of Planning "needs to show us if they’re serious about including community input and not just doing a dog-and-pony show when they already have their mind made up."

Two city-sponsored workshops were held this summer and another two are planned for this fall to provide insight into possible uses of the 25-acre site, which still houses the 20 concrete towers in which water was once purified for the city. Options offered at the July 29 meeting included preserving the historical site, maintaining the area as open space or developing retail and commercial facilities, said Derrick Woody, an economic revitalization planner and project manager for the D.C. Office of Planning.

Woody said the Office of Planning has made concerted efforts to accommodate all of the parties during the workshops and encouraged all participants to voice their opinions.

"Even within the community there are many different groups with different views of what should be done with the site," Woody said. "We are working toward developing a majority consensus (among those groups)."

Woody emphasized, however, that "revenue generation will play a primary role to justify doing anything on the site."

He said the $40 million price tag to preserve the site would be prohibitively expensive without planned revenue to cover the costs. Furthermore, the city is eager to return the 25 acres to the tax rolls, he said, which preserving the land as open space will not allow.

To satisfy the need for revenue generation, open-space supporters are examining the feasibility of establishing a farmers’ market, re-opening the purification plant to produce bottled water, or using the land as a site for monuments, Norman said.

But Gwen Southerland, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents many of the the McMillan site’s Ward 5 neighbors, said she testified before the D.C. City Council in January that the site should not be expected to generate a lot of income.

"We need to put culture above consumerism. Everything shouldn’t always have to be decided on that," Southerland said.

Completed in 1905, the water purification facility used a sand-filtration system to provide drinking water for the city. Architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. surrounded the facility with vast parkland "landscaped in celebration of the wonder of a constant purified water supply," according to a 1990 issue of Historic Preservation magazine.

The facility ceased its operations in 1986 and was granted historic designation in 1991, during the last battle to block development of the site. Today it sits dormant and overgrown with weeds.

Bounded by Michigan Avenue, Channing Street, First Street and North Capitol Street, the site is located in Ward 5 and abuts Ward 1 and Ward 4.

Both Councilman Vincent Orange, D-Ward 5, and Councilwoman Charlene Jarvis, D-Ward 4, are reserving judgment on the site’s future until the issue comes before the city council. Both have sent representatives to the workshops to keep abreast of the disparate views, aides said.

Graham, on the other hand, supports the preservation of the site as open space, Norman said.

About 100 people have attended each of the two workshops, representing the interests of neighbors, public interest groups, D.C. agencies, large institutions, developers and the business community.

The next workshop, originally scheduled for Sept. 9, has been postponed until Sept. 23 and the last meeting has been bumped to Oct. 21 to allow for additional public suggestions. The workshops are part of a land-use review process that the Office of Planning expects to take another two years before a developer is selected for the McMillan site.

A related community workshop is planned for Sept. 20, entitled "Extending the Legacy Plan for America’s Capital Entering the 21st Century." The workshop will be sponsored by the North Capitol Area Business Association and presented by the National Capital Planning Commission, the Fine Arts Commission and the Historic Preservation Review Board.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator