Testimony in Support of the future redevelopment of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site

Testimony before
the Hon. Michael A. Brown, Chairperson
Committee on Economic Development and Housing regarding:

Public oversight roundtable on the future development of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site

by Cheryl Cort, Policy Director
September 19, 2012

Please accept our testimony on behalf of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. My organization works to ensure that transportation and development decisions in the Washington D.C. region accommodate growth while revitalizing communities, providing more housing and travel choices, and conserving our natural and historic areas.

We wish to express our support for the proposed Master Plan for the McMillan Sand Filtration Plant. This plan is a carefully designed redevelopment and preservation plan that will highlight the unique historic resources while putting this significant parcel back to productive use. This 25-acre site, adjacent to the 68-acre McMillan Reservoir site helps reconnect the Washington Hospital Center complex and adjacent neighborhoods back to the rest of the city while also addressing the growing need for more housing, especially more affordable housing, local retail, medical offices, and celebration of the historic features of the site.

Many have demanded that even more park space be created, though a large share of the master plan devotes the site to open space and parks. We suggest that the combination of creating a hub of activity along with the preservation of historic resources and park land in the proposed master plan be complemented by demanding more of the Army Corps of Engineers Reservoir area, which hosts some of the original historic park land. We are concerned that too much emphasis has been put on the scale of open space and not enough focus on providing more affordable housing at deeper levels of affordability. Too much open space without sufficient levels of activity to animate the space can create vacant and unsafe places. We trust that the high quality design team will temper the false notion that bigger is necessarily better, with the design principles that the success of public spaces depends on how it is programmed and how it connects to surrounding uses.

The plan proposes to provide interpretation and public access to key elements of the distinctive historic resources. This would not be possible without the redevelopment program that helps pay for the cost of the restoration. For decades, access to this large area was prohibited, thus creating a wide gap between surrounding activities and neighborhoods. When you walk across this area, bicycle along Michigan Avenue, or wait for a bus by the hospital as I have done, you feel disconnected, as if you are traversing through no-man’s land. This master plan will reengage the site with its surroundings and turn this gap into an inviting destination with a distinctive heritage.

In addition to the restoration of key historic features and the provision of public access and interpretation, the plan addresses other important needs of the area and city. The plan offers active commercial uses to serve surrounding neighborhoods and adjacent medical facilities. The plan will create a variety of new housing options for our growing city, including affordable housing. We welcome the affordable housing but believe that the project could provide more affordable housing and deeper levels of affordability. The streetcar land use study by the DC Office of Planning identified this site as a key resource to secure more affordable housing in anticipation of rising housing prices as this future streetcar corridor becomes more desirable.

The scaling of the development proposed in the plan is appropriate to the varied context, while also weaving in respectful public space that features historic silos, filtration cells, and adaptive reuse of historic buildings and other elements. The plan appropriately focuses taller office buildings towards Michigan Avenue and tapers building heights and forms as the development moves south to meet rowhouse neighbors. Large scale buildings are needed close to Michigan Avenue to give a sense of enclosure. Eventually, we hope these new buildings will be accompanied by a reconfigured hospital complex to the north with more pedestrian-oriented designs.

The plan for complementary new uses of retail, offices, and residential will strengthen the facing hospital complex and reconnect it to the city and surrounding areas. These proposed uses are likely to build upon and amplify the contribution that current hospital center-related activities make to D.C.’s economy and employment base.

Overall, we commend this master plan as a sensitive approach to preserving this fascinating industrial architectural landscape while putting this long off-limits site back to productive use. The redevelopment plan meets other important community and citywide needs. The balance of preservation and development makes the effort feasible and will enable a large number of people to enjoy these historic resources.

Thank you for your consideration.