Saturday, May 6, 2017

A new park in East Baltimore

Tom Stosur, the Planning Director, is lately all about "green infrastructure" and specifically the goal of bringing additional green to the areas in east and west Baltimore which have the lowest tree cover as he points out on his map. What dilapidated rowhouses turned into a well designed green space can do is now demonstrated in East Baltimore in a community which was once called Middle East.
Eager Park on opening day 

The merits of the large urban renewal experiment now known under the acronym EBDI have been debated as long as the idea of renewal has been around. It has been associated with large scale demolition, resident displacement, a Hopkins land grab and proof that large top down government initiated renewal is destined to fail.

But lately a new narrative emerges. Green infrastructure has a lot to do with it. Saturday Eager Park was officially opened, representing the filet mignon of the redevelopment, a four-block 5.5 acre park that knits together the big commercial and office development that was originally conceived as a bio-park, multifamily housing, new townhomes, restored row houses, and yes, also boarded row houses still waiting being kissed back to life. The park begins to stitch together what was too long the hard line of the tall Hopkins campus lording over tiny rowhouses.
Future community garden and ongoing rehabilitation work next to the park

Redevelopment promoters can point to a good amount of investment and services that had been sorely lacking for so long: A spacious Walgreens sitting at the first floor of a large garage building on Ashland Street. Across the street, on the ground floor of a seven-story office and research building, Atwaters has opened a coffee shop. Even Starbucks opened a workforce training shop facing the new park and Hamid Karzai of the Charles Street Helmand restaurant has opened another eatery here.

After what seemed like slow and unsteady progress all of a sudden there is a park. Weed lots have given way to rows of new townhomes facing lovingly restored ones. This doesn't make any of the accusations of the past wrong but it shifts the needle towards success. Why? Because after more than a dozen years of heavy lifting, after numerous masterplans, leader changes at EBDI and corrections of course the redevelopment has finally reached critical mass. What for years looked like desperate isolated attempts of throwing good money after bad is now coming together just as the master plans suggested. More and more blocks look like the renderings which once appeared to be mere taunts in face of so much decay and misery.
Inside the new Starbucks with workforce training

Additionally, support places at the periphery are shored up, improved or all new such as the refurbished North-East Market and the much discussed brand-new community school which is still finding how to live up to its name. There is Monument Street as a quite busy "main street" and there a the impressive monuments such as the St Wenzislaus catholic church across from the new school which have been around "forever".

Investment has spread west into Oliver, once one of the most devastated communities, known for the terrible fire bombing of the Dawson house that killed the family of six. Investment is even jumping to the other side of the Amtrak tracks that separate the EBDI planning area from the vast disinvested community around the old American Brewery building now occupied by Humanim.

As Sean Closkey of TRF, one of the masterminds behind the Oliver revival, can explain like no other, the rebound of Oliver wouldn't have been possible without EBDI shoring up up the areas to the east. Conversely, the new Middle East will be vastly more successful if it is connected to downtown by a succession of thriving communities instead of the long stretches of abandonment that still characterize the distance. Make no mistake, EBDI while driven by large institutions such as Hopkins and the Casey Foundation, it is not at all simple gentrification driven by market forces. Whatever one wants to say about the process, it took millions of dollars of up-front investment and subsidies to bring the area near a point where "the market" would even consider buying or investing here.
Inside the refurbished Northeast Market

The new park  is a case in point. It cost $14 million because it isn't simply a meadow but a carefully crafted sequence of event spaces including a covered stage, work-out stations, a fountain, rows of trees, kebony wood plank walks, a community garden, bio swales for stormwater and the latest in LED lighting designed by Mahan Rykiel landcsape architects in collaboration with the Baltimore office of Gensler Architects. A tree lined promenade along Wolfe Street with concrete and sand walk surfaces, emergency call stations and innovative lighting is described by the designers as a "path and a place". On the opening day adults lined up for a game of
The playground in the park
hopscotch, promenaded on the path, bought hot dogs while kids enjoyed the new fountain and the playground with stainless steel equipment.

The dignitaries (Council-president Jack Young who grew up in the neighborhood and still has a sister in the community, Mayor Catherine Pugh, Senator Nathaniel McFadden, Hopkins President Ron Daniel, former City Council-member Carl Stokes and others) praised the achievements in an event orchestrated by Scott Levitan of Forest City, the master developer, as is usual in ribbon cuttings. But it didn't need their words to see that this park is for the community and has already been embraced as a space to come together. After many years of finger-pointing, divisions, accusations, frustrations and some false starts, coming together is what this community needs because only then can the new Middle East be a success.

As for the State's citywide project CORE and the new green infrastructure plan: The new Eager Park shows that green infrastructure can be, indeed catalytic, but it works only if it is embedded into a bigger community supported plan fueled by an array of systematic reinvestment all around.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Picture gallery: (all images Klaus Philipsen except as noted)
Eager Park: with rules


open with fanfare

Mayor Pugh with neighborhood kids

Walgreen on Ashland Avenue

Atwaters on Ashland Ave

The St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church on Ashland Avenue

Renovated rowhouses on Gay Street

The former Police Station on Ashland Ave with new stores under construction in the background

The game has been changed

Hopefully vestiges of the past like this car repair shop on Henneman can be saved

the renovated Northeast Market on Monument Street is a success

Getting a snack at Eager Park

More to come: New townhomes close to completion

Refurbished sidewalks and new townhomes on Wolfe Street facing the park

Playing a hop and jump game on the new grass

New townhomes (right) facing rehabbed rowhouses (left) on Washington Street

Well maintained old rowhouses on Washington Street


The fountain at Eager Park and the steps with inscriptions
Eager Park (photo: Mahan Rykiel)

Kebony wood boardwalk