Lots of Upgrades on the Way for SoBo Parks

A mural painted this spring is the first step in renovations to the Longhouse and the addition of new features around the historic structure in Latrobe Park. Cheryl Duffey (left) is spearheading the effort with mural designer Nicole Buchholz. Photo by Mary Braman.

(This article originally appeared in the June-July 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)

Some big changes are coming soon to public parks across the South Baltimore peninsula. Upgrades, expansions, and even new construction are moving forward from desires to designs, from designs to site plans, and from site plans to actual work on the ground. With some projects already started and more to begin in a few months, look for a lot of new activity in SoBo parks over the next two years.

Major upgrades to city parks do not happen overnight. It typically takes years to go from discussion to completion – a decade or more is not unheard of – and lining up funding is always a challenge. This April, several SoBo park projects received a financial shot in the arm from the State of Maryland through its 2022 annual budget process. Just over $8 million was targeted to park projects in Solo Gibbs, Rash Field, Riverside, and Latrobe, according to District 46 delegate Luke Clippinger.

“The whole Team 46 delegation made a big push this year for park funding in South Baltimore and across the district,” says Clippinger. District 46 also includes Canton, the Inner Harbor, Pigtown, Cherry Hill, and Brooklyn. These funds kickstart some projects and make a big dent in the budgets of others that still need to line up more resources.

Latrobe Park: ‘Longhouse’ Project

The new state funding provides the “Longhouse Project” at Latrobe Park in Locust Point with all the money needed to move toward completion. The Longhouse structure, located on the east side of the park, between the playground and soccer field, is part of the original 1904 park design by the Olmsted Brothers. Underused and in poor repair, the Longhouse is now the focal point of renovations and upgrades to the structure itself and adjacent open areas.

The project is spearheaded by Locust Point Civic Association’s Parks and Beautification Committee and a team of residents working on the Olmsted Bicentennial, a nationwide celebration of the contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted to urban planning and natural preservation. Locust Point resident Cheryl Duffey, a long-time advocate for the park, is leading community planning on the project.

The first phase is a massive mural covering the central wall of the Longhouse designed by urban planner and peninsula resident Nicole Buchholz and funded by LPCA and the Olmsted 200 project. The brightly colored mural celebrates Locust Point’s maritime and industrial history.

Work began in late April when Buchholz led local residents in putting the first coat of paint on the mural and the neighboring gazebo. She continued to add layers of paint and refined the design through May, with the target of sealing the finished mural with clear-coat paint in June.

The remaining phases of the project, covered by $300,000 of state funding, will seek to transform the open green space next to the Longhouse into a seating/gathering area and “natural play” space for older children. Duffey and Buchholz contributed to design concepts for these areas and are working with Baltimore City Recreation and Parks on refining those plans.

“Our first focus on this project is the renovations to the roof structure of the Longhouse,” says Adam Boarman, chief of capital development at Baltimore City Rec and Parks. “With the new state allocation, we’re also exploring opportunities for enhancements around and between the Longhouse and playground.” According to Boarman, no timeline for completion of the project has been set, but Duffey is hopeful that much of the work will be completed in 2023.

Solo Gibbs Park: Site Work Begins

On May 2, Rec and Parks hosted a public Zoom meeting to brief residents on its approach to starting implementation of the Solo Gibbs Park Master Plan, developed with community input over the past several years. The plan for the Sharp-Leadenhall park envisions the addition of a playground, a multipurpose field with flexible area lighting, and basketball courts with lower, more kid-friendly hoops. With about $6 million already allocated to the plan, the first phase is now underway.

The work started this spring includes topographic and utility surveys and soil testing, which will continue through the summer. “And then there’s a lot of landscape architecture and engineering that has to get done so that we can ultimately bid and build the project,” says Boarman. The demolition of Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary School is another preliminary step that is slated to begin by this fall. Then construction can begin in early 2024.

Part of the design development phase this year will include a cultural resources report. This report helps preserve the history of the area, as any relics unearthed from test pits to be dug by this fall may warrant additional excavations and analyses. The current phase of the renovation will also improve flow and circulation of the park by optimizing the Gwynns Falls Trail and adding inviting gateways and entrances.

During the May Zoom meeting, plans for the section of Solo Gibbs Park north of W. Hamburg Street received a lot of attention from the community. With one of its tennis courts already removed, there was discussion about what that empty space would become. Would it be a fenced dog park? More trees? A playground extension? Future meetings will help decide what’s to come next.

A new recreation center for Solo Gibbs is part of the Master Plan, but it is not part of the current stage of park work, says Boarman. The proposed center would include a gym, fitness rooms, and a community gathering space. New state funding for Solo Gibbs Park this year – $3.5 million – is dedicated to the rec center, but more is needed before that project can move ahead.

Repairs to the iconic Riverside Park gazebo is just one of many upgrades coming to the park. Others include a larger softball field and new basketball and pickleball courts. Photo by Steve Cole.

Riverside Park: Bigger Field, Plus

It’s been a long time coming, but in the next few months some big changes will start at Riverside Park, many of which were envisioned in the park’s Master Plan way back in 2010.

“We’re really excited about all these projects that have kind of bunched up and now, all of a sudden, there’s going to be this explosion of new activity,” said Jackson Fisher, chair of Friends of Riverside Park, a committee of the Riverside Neighborhood Association.

First out of the blocks is the “Athletic Fields” project, which involves renovating the softball field at the southwest corner of the park as well as the basketball and pickleball courts along Johnson Street. Rec and Parks is nearing selection of the contractor, says Boarman, “and I expect we will be under construction this summer.”

The softball field will be expanded to a full size, adult field by pushing back the southern fence line onto three acres of property the city acquired from CSX a few years ago. The field will get a new drainage system, dugouts, and fencing. The current three-quarter-size basketball court will be replaced by a full-sized court. And the sidewalk along the park side of Johnson Street will be extended to the end of the expanded softball field, Fisher reports. Some of the new state funds going to the park ($350,000) will go to installing new lights for the field. The athletic fields project should be complete in summer 2023, Boarman says.

Next up will be the “Field House” project, a complete renovation of the “Red House” building that sits just above the softball field. The new design will add bathrooms, a concession area, and a patio with seating. Boarman expects this project to begin in 2023 as work on the athletic fields wraps up.

The park’s iconic gazebo facing E. Randall Street will also be getting some attention, although a timeline has not been set for the work to start. South Baltimore Gateway Partnership is funding the project, which will give the gazebo a new roof and paint and replace parts of the cast-iron support structure.

The bulk of the new state funding directed to Riverside Park ($1.2 million) will go to starting design work on a long-awaited, top-to-bottom renovation of the pool and bathhouse. “The pool systems are antiquated and inefficient,” says Boarman. “Basically, the whole pool area is not in line with modern-day pool amenities. And the bathhouse itself is in poor condition.” With a total estimated price tag of $6 million, a timeline for a new Riverside pool and bathhouse will have to wait for remaining funding to be secured.

Rash Field Park: Phase II Input

The peninsula’s newest park, Rash Field at the Inner Harbor, has attracted crowds and rave reviews since it opened in November. The final piece of this first phase of the park – a vendor to operate an eatery at the new café pavilion – is due to arrive by late summer.

Waterfront Partnership, which manages the park’s design and construction, is wasting no time in getting started on Phase II. The first step, according to Waterfront Partnership president Laurie Schwartz, is community input on a conceptual plan for the area between the new park and the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

“We expect to start a community outreach and engagement process in June to test out that conceptual plan and listen to what ideas the larger Baltimore community has for what could happen in Phase II,” says Schwartz.

The current plan includes beach volleyball courts, an open field or lawn area for special events and soccer games for middle-schoolers, a jogging track, exercise equipment, and bird and butterfly gardens. After community input, the project moves to detailed designs that should be complete by mid-2023. The new state funding provided $3 million to the project, but much more needs to be raised before construction can begin, says Schwartz.

Federal Hill Park: Slope Fix, Lights

No major upgrades are on the books for this historic peninsula park, but Rec and Parks plans to begin work this winter on final repairs to the portion of the hill’s eastern slope that partially collapsed in 2018. The rip rap covering this section of the hill will be replaced with “something more elegant,” like grass, says Boarman.

One upgrade that may be noticed more by park neighbors than visitors is a new row of streetlights installed in May along the Battery Avenue sidewalk at the western edge of the park. Funding for the lights came from the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership’s “enhanced services” program, says Beth Whitmer, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. FHNA is also seeking funding from the state for additional lighting to be placed in or around the park.

In 2023, the peninsula will get a new park just north of the Sagamore Spirit distillery in the Port Covington development currently under construction.

New Park, New Neighborhood

The last stop on this peninsula tour of public parks is in a SoBo neighborhood that does not exist yet: Port Covington, on the south side of I-95. The area’s first collection of residences, offices, and shops is nearing completion and with it a new city park. Informally dubbed “Triangle Park” for its shape, tucked between new buildings on the north side of E. Cromwell Street, the less-than-one acre park will feature a sculptural pavilion, oval lawn, playground, trees, and native plants.

The new park is set to open by mid-2023, according to a spokesperson for Port Covington developer, MAG Partners. – Steve Cole and John Thomas

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