PBS Video – UNUSUAL SPACES: “The Mysterious, Abandoned Silos of Washington, DC”

The Mysterious, Abandoned Silos of Washington, DC from PBS Digital Studios on Vimeo.

Thanks to all who sent links to this video:

“The McMillan Sand Filtration Site is one of Washington, DC’s most conspicuous mysteries: a fenced-off 25-acre grassy plain just over 2 miles north of Capitol Hill, marked by rows of tall concrete cylinders clothed in overgrown ferns. Unbeknownst to the thousands of commuters and residents that pass by its rusted gates daily, below this sprawling parcel of land lies a series of vast underground caverns built in the early 20th century by the Army Corps of Engineers as a natural purification facility for DC’s turbid water supply.

Sealed to the public at the onset of World War II, the park above the filtration cells has been inaccessible ever since. Now, almost 30 years since its official closure, the site – a curious holdout among DC’s recent wave of rapid urban development – has become the subject of a widespread debate over its future use.”

Ed. Note: You can see some renderings for the planned new development here.

29 Comment

  • Uh, oh….here comes the McMillan Battle on PoP today.

    As a resident of LeDroit, I do want to see this site developed, but I really do have issue with the current plans. It is such a cool/unique not just local, but national treasure and I hate to think that because we want a Safeway closer to home that we will destroy this area.

    • I previously lived right next to the High Line in NYC in the mid-00’s, in the years just before it was re-developed. McMillan – as it stands today – reminds me of the High Line just prior to hyper-gentrification explosion of that area. My then-girlfriend and I would frequently go on walks on the abandoned High Line, the solitude was incredible.
      McMillen will be redeveloped in some way, but I hope they manage to creatively do it. If they manage to keep many of the chambers and stacks, it could be an architectural work of art.

    • this is a great point. my problem with development in DC almost always has to do more with process than the proposed outcome. in this case, the city was paying a PR firm to astroturf support for the VMP plan, they’re not getting as much for taxpayers as they should have, and there is a real case to be made for doing a better job of preserving some of the unique aspects of the space. all of that said, this is prime property, and I think some of the FoM supporters are being ridiculous in demanding limited to no development. we need more residential and retail, this is a great location, and there is a plan in place to make it happen–even if it is not perfect.

    • My biggest problem with the development (horrid brutalist-inspired apartments notwithstanding) is traffic. This is an issue that has not been addressed by the developers, as there’s little that they can do in terms of widening existing streets or bringing mass-transit to the area. That part of North Capitol is almost constantly jammed as is – imagine what adding thousands of housing/office units would do?

    • The traffic is a valid concern as well, but in reality, we live in a metropolitan city. I spent many years living in NYC and London and although DC is nowhere close to having transit opportunities like those cities, it is a mistake to not build in downtown Washington because traffic will get worse–we will adapt. I think the goal should be to allow this to remain more of a park setting, like the High Line, with small retail and housing–small shops, more row homes like the St. Paul’s project on Brookland and less condos. The new plan as far as allocation of the space isn’t terrible in my opinion, but it is horrifically unimaginative with the vast amount of opportunities for creativity that exist on such a unique landmark. The present design feels like an inexpensive dressing they placed on top of something far more valuable.

  • austindc

    It hasn’t been completely “inaccessible.” The friends of McMillan used to have open houses all the time and just let people wander around and explore. Which is how I got my cool popville picture.

    • Ok. So lets say for 30 saturday and sundays they opened it for 8 hours a day. Thats 480 hours. There are maybe 12 hours of daylight a day that it could have been accessible for the past 30 years. Now, adjusting for a few weeks a year of construction, updates, etc that made it not accessible, lets say that the park would have only been open 343 days a year. The 480 hours that the “Friends” of McMillan had it “accessible” accounted for 0.4% (rounding up) of the time had it, you know… actually been accessible.

      I’d say its fair to say that something has been inaccessible for ____ years if during that time period its been completely fenced off and locked for 99.6% of the time.

      Its time to make use of this space. Maybe the “Friends” of McMillan can move on to save the Shaw park… you know a park thats actually a park and actually about to be paved over and developed.

      I cant wait for the resident whack jobs that post multipage posts on the bloomingdale blog and neighborhood listservs to get on here and spew their fake history and pseudo-architectural drivel.

    • Well, yes. Accessible with special permission and signing a liability waiver should a chunk of concrete fall on your head.

  • This is the kind of special, unique space that if it were in some forward-thinking European country, it would be turned into a marvelous park. Both with green space above and creative reuse of the subterranean level. But because this is Washington, DC, it will go to the highest bidder and end up being swallowed by ugly, exorbitantly-priced condominiums.

    • I don’t know about that. Last time I checked England was in Europe and if the McMillan site was located in London it would almost certainly be auctioned off to Hong Kong-based developers who would turn it into yet more luxury apartments that absentee Russian and Middle-Eastern one-percenters would buy as investment properties but never live in or rent out.

      • jim_ed

        I’ve always thought DC was lacking in mega-yacht parking infrastructure. Just a simple canal from McMillan to the Potomac should solve that.

      • You clearly have no idea of the planning process in Britain. While in London it could be sold to the highest bidder (depending on the circumstances) the planning rules are extremely strict and land is designated for commercial, residential, farming or recreational use. Changing the zoning to enable you to build on an area that is not previously zoned for construction is virtually impossible, just as it is virtually impossible to tear down most (older) buildings.

      • Maybe you missed the “forward-thinking” part.

  • I cannot wait for this place to be redeveloped. It’s going to be great. Needs a 50m pool though!

    The community should have more of an issue with the AFRH development though, since that one will be way bigger.

    • Oh, I’m sure the NIMBYs are already circling the wagons on that one. As well as the massive redevelopment of the drug and crime-infested Brookland Manor, which I’m sure they’ll argue is “historic.”

    • Love the 50m pool idea – indoor or outdoor?

      • There are current plans to build a pool in the proposed rec center. I think the reader above is hoping that the pool will be olympic-sized. (I just hope for a 3m high dive, as I can barely make it 50m swimming.)

        • Swim more, and I guarantee you will have no trouble with 50m. It is a much more pleasant experience than constantly turning in a 25yd pool. There are NO 50m indoor pools east of the park. (Wilson HS is great, but a trek from Petworth)

  • hispanicandproud

    I vote for a Kmart, Dunkin’ Donuts and a small plates place and maybe a good $10 taco hut. Oh, and a coffee place by the owners of Tryst!

  • Sorry, a bit OT, but speaking of mysterious spaces, wtf is the big rectangular concrete structure with a picture of the Capitol on it around 3rd & H NW?

  • Love the sirens in the background. How very DC.

    • heh, I’ve lived 2 blocks down first street from mcmillan for 5 years, and close as we are to two major hospitals, the sirens are a feature of the neighborhood. hard to fall asleep without them these days 🙂

      I’m not opposed to development at this spot (although I do miss my early morning runs up first, quiet with the sun coming up behind the silos – the tunnel construction has had that quashed for awhile – it’s funny how you come to think of something that so many people see each day as “yours.”) but as someone else mentioned it would be ideal on a smaller scale.

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