BY JAZZY WRIGHT
The McMillan sand-filtration site
On a foggy Saturday in November residents from the Bloomingdale, Eckington, and Stronghold neighborhoods gathered on the McMillan Park grounds to take a tour of one of the site’s remaining underground filter cells. Throughout the tour, representatives for DC Water, the agency currently working to divert floodwater to one of the cells, assured visitors that the cell is stable enough for flood-relief construction. But, given that several cells on the sand filtration site have already collapsed, just how safe is the filtration site?
Much of what is known about McMillan Park comes from a structural analysis report published nearly 14 years ago by engineering firm C.C. Johnson & Malhotra (CCJM). The study, which was commissioned by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development, found that the underground network of filter cells was built with non-reinforced concrete, meaning that the structures are not reinforced with steel bars and cannot support aboveground development. While the report noted that several of the cells had deteriorated significantly, the engineers also found that a few of the cells were stable, marked only by small hairline cracks.
But the report is quite old. Since the CCJM report was released, several additional filtration cells have caved in. There was also the earthquake in 2011. Then there’s the issue that the soil underneath the filtration cells has not been tested for contamination. To save and preserve most of the stable cells – which is what many community activists want – the city has to make substantial structural modifications to the underground structures.
“From what I do know, some of these cells will fail and there’s a hole in the ground,” recalled Donald Koch, CCJM vice president and managing principal of the firm’s survey department. Koch was one of the engineers who analyzed McMillan years ago for the report. “If you have the misfortune of standing there, then that’s not safe.”
Officials from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) say that many of the cells are in such bad condition that they would need to be rebuilt from the ground up. “In order to make the cells safe, they would need to be outfitted with exterior reinforcement,” said Tania B. Jackson, who is the neighborhood outreach coordinator for Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), the city-backed team leading efforts to redevelop the site after decades of decay. As part of the VMP development plan, which relies heavily on findings from the 2000 structural report, several cells and more than 2,000 manholes will be demolished. Developers plan to preserve cells 14 and 28; DC Water will use Cell 14 until completion of the stormwater storage project in 2022.
On top of the needed remedial work there is the issue of cost. The city would have to raise funding to cover the preservation of the cells, as well as funding to support the build-out infrastructure for the development, which includes new roads, electric grids, and sewer and water lines.
“A report commissioned in 2000 by the District indicated that the cost to preserve the nine moderately stable cells was in excess of $23 million. However, the notion of preserving more than the two cells that the current plan will preserve means that the entire development footprint will need to be readjusted,” said Chanda Washington, the spokesperson for DMPED. “If we were to attempt such an exercise to preserve nine cells, even utilizing the estimates from the year 2000, there just would be no viable way to finance a project like this.”
Until development begins, the city has closed off public access to the site, citing safety and liability concerns. Interestingly enough, McMillan landscape architect Franklin Law Olmstead Jr. had similar concerns a century ago, which is why he added thorny shrubs along the perimeter of the filtration site to keep the public out.
Some nearby residents question the city's assertion that the site needs to be closed to the public, since the structural analysis report showed that a few cells were in stable condition. John Salatti, a neighborhood resident who previously gave tours of the cells, has asked the city to continue to allow tours. “Tours of the site are vital for community members to have the complete picture of what the District intends to do to their neighborhood,” said Salatti, who has called on city officials to provide an updated safety report. “They may love the VMP plans, but I feel that all residents really need to see what they will lose if the city continues to treat McMillan like a superfund site that needs to be remediated and plowed under.”
Over the next few months VMP will need to pass a few more hurdles before site demolition and development can begin. First the developers need to have their plan reviewed by J. Peter Byrne, the mayor's agent hearing officer. Next the plan moves to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and later the Zoning Commission. In the meantime DC Water has taken safety precautions of their own, building steel braces around several concrete columns and installing crack gauges throughout the cell.