D.C. officials and civic boosters are blowing an opportunity at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site.
The cylindrical, ivy-covered storage bins on the fenced-off expanse along North Capitol Street evoke a city’s arcane past. Washingtonians could be forgiven for not knowing of the network of vaulted concrete sand filtration cells beneath those structures, where the city cleansed its drinking water for 80 years. Or that the site, a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by 19th-century engineers Montgomery C. Meigs and Allen Hazen, and urban planner and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., among others.
Even amateur urban planners know the grass-covered 25-acre site as little more than an eyesore in a gentrifying neighborhood ripe for economic growth. The water filtration site, named for Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.) and decommissioned in 1986, is destined for 2 million square feet of mixed-use development better suited for Reston or Tysons Corner.
Great cities embrace such places with an appreciation of their history and a vision for the future. The reimagining of obsolete infrastructure such as New York’s High Line, Chicago’s Millennium Park and Seattle’s Gas Works Park proves that lasting economic growth flows from incorporating the bones of a city into its emerging new self.