There are places in the world that are unlike anywhere else – some of them are national parks, others historical monuments. But very few of them are in the middle of a busy city and yet closed to the public. Washington D.C.’s McMillan Reservoir Park is one of these rare places.
I’d known about McMillan Park for several years now, heard the stories from D.C. residents. A tour is led about once a year, but I had always been too busy to go. But now with rumors of bulldozers at the gates, I jumped on the invitation for a tour organized by the Friends of McMillan Park, a group opposed to conventional development of this historic and unique site. Although I had agreed with this group previously, my tour really cemented my support.
The park began as a water filtration plant for the city in 1905, using an innovative system based on passing the water through sand. The 25-acre site has a number of large towers that once held the sand, along with underground cells filled with sand that operators would pump water on top of. Although it sounds outdated, this system was surprisingly effective and is still used in some places around the world.
We spent most of the tour above ground, on top of the cells, on what the guide described as “the world’s largest green roof.” While various warehouses and corporations have tried to claim that title, this site probably has the right to it, as a “green roof” just means an area growing plants on top of a human-built structure. The McMillan “roof” is actually three feet thick, enough to grow trees on! And all built more than 100 years ago.
Unfortunately, it now just looks like an untidy, abandoned field that’s sporadically mowed. The green patches are peppered with rotting manhole covers that were once used to let light into the cells below-ground. With decades of neglect, many of them have disintegrated and the rest are close enough that the guide warned us not to stand on them.
From the high ground, we walked down some overgrown stairs, down a ramp, and into the cells below. Only a few feet in, the temperature dropped drastically. Like a natural cave, the cells are about 65 degrees all year round, providing their own temperature control.
We walked on top of sand that had once been used to filter water, now mostly packed down. Light filtered in from the cracks between the manhole covers and the surface. And it was completely silent except our voices. It was haunting and hard to believe we were in a city.
During the tour, our guide told us a bit about the history of the place. Beyond protecting the populace from cholera, the site was also meant to provide another public health benefit – green space. Lush vegetation once covered almost the entire area above the cells, giving a passersby the impression of an ordinary park with some interesting architecture. Designed during the height of the City Beautiful movement, the architects intended the space to be multi-functional and open to the public. In fact, McMillian Reservoir Park was a key element in the McMillian Plan, the design that led to the National Mall and is practically worshiped by historic preservationists. City designers of the time believed fresh air and spending time outside was not only physically healthy, but would inspire civic virtue and moral righteousness. I don’t know if the park actually improved morality, but historical accounts give the impression that it certainly got a lot of use. In addition to playing ball, having picnics, and going for strolls, people would even come sleep in the park during the summer! As the park is the highest point in the area, it was the coolest place around in those pre-air conditioned times.
Unfortunately, fear of terrorism shut the park down before “terrorism” was even a commonly used word. Afraid of the Axis powers poisoning the water supply of the Nation’s capital, the federal government closed off the park during WWII and then never bothered to reopen it. I’m sure the community certainly minded having this huge green space no longer open, but they didn’t exactly have neighborhood input panels back then.
Eventually, in 1986, the federal government via the Army Corps of Engineers decided it was no longer worth their while and sold it off to the city of Washington, D.C. They’ve been sitting on it ever since. The city originally planned to develop it into mixed commercial development but a variety of factors have kept them from doing so for the last 20 years. It’s been slowly deteriorating since then, with mowing the grass being the only visible upkeep.
Currently, the land is still marked for development and surprisingly close to having it happen. Via a semi-questionable land swap with a development agency that’s now part of the city government again, a development team has been working on it since 2007. Their current plan includes apartments, a grocery store, and other retail.
Friends of McMillan argues that while smart growth is great, disregarding this site’s historical and ecological uniqueness to construct a development that could go up anywhere is wasteful. While the area was in desperate need of development twenty years ago, there are now a huge number of nearby multi-use developments in the process of being constructed. As the neighborhood is a distance from the nearest Metro stop and traffic there is already bad, adding very dense residential apartments would increase the problem. In addition, by building houses on top of the underground stream that runs through the site, they’re guaranteeing the people who buy houses there will have water problems forever.
In contrast, there’s a serious lack of green space. Although D.C. has a number of lovely pocket parks, the most significant green space in that neighborhood is a cemetery. While having a certain Victorian charm, it’s not exactly somewhere you can play tag. The current plan claims to have 50 percent green space, but much of it is in tree boxes and teeny squares. Only a small percentage of it will be continuous green space and it’s anticipated to be rather formal. In addition, this plan will destroy most of the underground cells, although it will maintain the towers.
Despite the site’s current state, some visionaries can imagine better things for it than an ordinary development. Some people want it to be pure park, which would be nice but not all that distinctive. Others want to expose the end of the underground stream to daylight and install an urban beach, which I think would be really cool.
My favorite idea is unsurprisingly the one being championed by the founder of Ecolocity, the sustainable food group I sometimes volunteer with. Grand thinker that he is, he imagines the space becoming a combination park, urban agriculture project, and eco-tourism spot. While much of the space would be set aside for “play,” there would also be plenty of room for a number of community gardens and even farms. If you got really ambitious, farmers could even raise animals, including goats (natural mowing!) or chickens. In the below-ground cells with their ever steady temperature, you could make wine, beer, and cheese. In the summer, the cells would be the perfect place for farmers’ stalls and even perhaps stores. He has even suggested restoring a bit of the water filtration function to filter water and sell it in hand-blown glass bottles made of the sand. Although the site is unique, the structure of integrating different types of agricultural and economic functions could be a model for other places. Honestly, I could see it being a big draw for tourists looking for something unique beyond the National Mall.
I hope that this wasn’t my last trip to McMillan Park before the bulldozers destroy much of this site’s unique features. Of course, I hope that the bulldozers never come and we settle on a more productive use of the space instead. But without some serious community and political support, this space is either going to remain closed off to the public forever or become just another development. I think the space and the public deserves more.
Author’s Note: I originally made a major factual error and a few points that were fuzzy in this post that people pointed out to me and I have since corrected. I’m noting them here for reasons of transparency. Working off of my own misunderstanding, I originally said “All of this would require completely destroying the towers and cells,” which is not true. The proposed development plan will actually maintain all of the regulator houses and towers, as well as one cell. Quoting our tour guide I said “6%” of the development would be continuous green space. However, since I don’t have an actual citation for that specific number, I’ve changed it to “a small percentage.” Lastly, there seems to be a level of disagreement about how much the federal government via the General Services Administration (GSA) offered the land to the city for and their requirements. As the case quoted on the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation’s website is vague, I just took the phrase “at the demand of the federal government” out.