Vision Of Citywide Trail Network One Step Closer To Reality
A premier 35-mile trail network that would stitch together Baltimore City’s major parks and connect more than 75 neighborhoods, built on a century-old vision of the renowned Olmsted family of landscape architects, may see substantial progress under Mayor Brandon Scott.
The Democrat has identified the network, which is projected to bring millions of dollars in economic and social benefits to transit-poor neighborhoods, as a priority in his plan to make Baltimore more equitable.
“I’ve been proud to support the Greenway Trails Network since its inception because it spreads equitable access to open space, recreation, and safe alternative means of transportation – including walking, biking, and riding scooters – to more of our neighborhoods,” Scott said.
The trail network’s supporters conceptualize it as a “near-term” project because of a crucial advantage: it’s nearly done. Of the 35 miles included in the network’s plan, 25 already exist, mostly in Baltimore’s major parks. The remaining 10 miles of trail are in planning stages; completing them would require about $28 million, sourced from the public and private sectors, to finish.
Advocates of the network say the trails will serve the third of Baltimore households that don’t have access to cars with safe opportunities for transportation by bike or foot and bolster access to both nature and downtown Baltimore.
If completed, the trails would be within a half mile of the majority of the city’s neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are composed of 58% Black residents and have a home ownership rate of 48%, which is representative of the city as a whole.
“It's a new way of imagining a sustainable, equitable, accessible city for everybody,” said Jim Brown, a trail development manager at Rails-To-Trails who helped create the network. “By designing a facility that is open and accommodating to bicyclists, to pedestrians, to joggers, to people in wheelchairs, to people of all ages, from kids to senior citizens and people of all abilities, you're creating an infrastructure that weaves together all of the neighborhoods in the city.”
The incomplete pieces of the network would link the city’s crown jewel trails: the Gwynns Falls Trail, which runs nearly 15 miles along the Gwynns Falls river on the city’s west side; the Jones Falls Trail, a 9-mile path that runs north-south from the Mt. Washington neighborhood through Druid Hill Park and down to the Inner Harbor; and the Herring Run Trail, a 2.5-mile path that follows Northeast Baltimore’s Herring Run Park.
These parks lack connections to trails, thoroughfares and other popular destinations outside their immediate neighborhoods. Advocates say the new connections will enhance Baltimore’s socioeconomic landscape by turning physical barriers into gateways that everyone can enjoy.
Five final legs of the trail are needed.
- 2 miles of trail along West Gwynns Falls Parkway, from Druid Hill Park west towards Leakin Park. This trail would feature Druid Hill Park and Hanlon Park, and pass by Coppin State University and Mondawmin Mall.
- 1.4 miles of trail along the East 33rd Street Corridor to connect Herring Run Trail and Lake Montebello. The coalition is using Maryland State Bikeways grant and funding from Morgan State and Johns Hopkins University to create the path, which will run near the Waverly Farmers’ Market, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Wyman Park Dell.
- 2 miles of trail, conceptualized as the Highlandtown Highline, would run north from Canton to the Baltimore Gas & Electric Utility Corridor along the old, unused Pennsylvania Railroad line.
- 1.5 miles of trail along the Baltimore Gas & Electric Utility Corridor, which would connect the Highlandtown Highline to the Herring Run Trail. It would also build a direct trail link to the Inner Harbor from northeast Baltimore. BGE, which owns the corridor, gave the coalition the greenlight to transform the pathway. This section of the trail will run through unused meadow.
- 1.6 miles of trail alongside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in South Baltimore, from the Gwynns Fall trail south to Cherry Hill. It will also provide a connection to Port Covington.
The Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition is behind the efforts to promote, fund and complete the network. It consists of more than 60 partners that include neighborhood community associations, the Central Maryland Transportation Association, the National Park Service and multiple city agencies, including the Departments of Transportation, Health, Planning and Recreation and Parks.
The coalition hopes to complete the project through a patchwork of public and private funding. They are waiting on acquisition of several properties needed to complete the trail, as well as major funding for construction. Under the Scott administration, advocates are hopeful that both can happen.
“I am currently working with city agencies to develop an action plan to implement the vision over this term,” the Democrat said. “My administration will be focused on carrying out this plan through a lens of equity.”
The coalition also hopes that developers in the process of building along the trail follow in the footsteps of 28Walker, a development firm that built a portion of the trail alongside an ongoing apartment project in the southeast neighborhood of Brewers Hill.
“It's always to our benefit to have additional access to any of our sites, and it's really important for us to have pedestrian connectivity,” said Alex Mandel, a director at 28 Walker.
Neighborhood residents encouraged the firm to build the local segment of the trail.
Residents “are going to have better ideas then you're going to have, because they're living it every day,” Mandel said. “We're trying to really emphasize a grid and a connection to the entire neighborhood.”
Brant Fischer, former President of the Brewers Hill Community Association, was part of that push. The historically industrial neighborhood’s lack of safe, outdoor spaces has become more dire during the pandemic, as families spend most of their time at home, he said.
The community leader said that’s caused families to move to other parts of the city or outside Baltimore altogether in search of more space and public amenities like parks.
“There’s just a lack of resources here that are within reach,” Fischer said. “We have a lot here, a vacant lot that kids are using as their green space.”
Stacy Maney, a Brewers Hill resident with a child of her own, said that lack of space has made it hard to meet fellow parents and build community.
“We don't get to meet our neighbors, because people have to get in their car and drive to areas to take their children to play,” she said. “The greenway will bring people together so you can meet your neighbors and know who's living right next door.”
On top of space for families, Fischer said, the network “gives us an opportunity to connect to other parts of the city, too.”
A 2020 report from the consulting firm Ernst & Young said the network would lead to a potential decline of 8.6 million car miles traveled throughout the city each year, and create up to 700,000 public transit transportation trips.
The use of the trails could lead to as much as $113 million in associated local business activity along the network, the same report found. For example, a resident who walks a segment of the trail may peel off to grab a cup of coffee from a shop along its route. The network could also lead to $2.4 million in reduced annual healthcare costs for trail users.
The EY study also found that the network could generate an increase of up to $314 million in residential property value throughout the city, It also predicted an increase in property tax revenue of up to $7.1 million each year. For the 52% of residents near the trail who are renters, it predicted an increase in rent of $64 a month for properties within a quarter mile of the network and $26 for properties within a half mile.
Stakeholders are aware that the trail network may cause gentrification by attracting wealthier residents to neighborhoods with historically undervalued homes.
Brown, of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said the coalition will partner with neighborhood leaders such as Fischer to ensure that the construction, maintenance and impact of the trail advance racial and economic equity for communities along the trail.
“We want to make sure that we can get out ahead of it and start to think about how we can do this in an equitable way and one that provides the assurance that folks need that they will be there when the trail is done,” Brown said.
Del. Stephanie Smith, an East Baltimore Democrat, said part of that assurance should involve developing strategies to ensure that the increased property values the project may bring can build generational wealth among Black families, not displace them.
“It's a situation where the oppressive levels of taxation are warring with other desires to actually accrue a real benefit from their biggest investment,” Smith said. “We don't want people to miss out on wealth building for their family on a generational basis because they're scared of taxes.”
The city charges a property tax of about 2.25% of a home’s assessed value. And while credits such as the Homestead Property Tax Credit can protect homeowners from sharp year-to-year tax increases, many of those eligible for the program don’t know it exists, Smith said.
“That’s the big fear for folks,” she said. “They're like, ‘I want the amenities, I want walkability. I want more things that are at my doorstep. But I also don't want to get those things and not be able to afford to access any of them.’ ”
Those fears can be addressed by helping homeowners create estate plans and apply for tax credits, she said. Changing the narrative can also help.
Many Baltimoreans in gentrifying areas have heard developers and planners focus on the new residents that ambitious projects may bring in, rather than how those projects may improve their lives, she said.
“What that communicates to the person who has always been here is that what they contribute is not of value,” Smith said. “The best way to grow a city is to make it the best place to live for the people who already live there.”