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See how South Baltimore communities may transform with new plan that's 'really happening this time'

The residents of the neighborhoods around the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River have long felt hemmed in by highways and railroads — cut off from the rest of Baltimore City. Now, a plan is emerging to turn the area from what one community leader called a “dumping ground” to what another described as “Baltimore’s next great waterfront.” This isn’t the first plan to transform these communities. It’s just one of many that dates back more than a century to the days of the Olmstead Company, founded by urban planner Frederick Law Olmstead, none of which have gone much of anywhere.

“So, we had the 1904 plan, and then we had the 1977 plan,” recounts Brad Rogers, executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership. “And then we had the 1997 plan and the 2007 plan. Now we're really doing it, it's really happening right now.”

The draft plan is expected to be finalized in the next two weeks and presented to the Baltimore City planning commission early next year.

Michael Middleton, the executive director of the Cherry Hill Development Corporation, has been involved in the effort since 2008. He says they’ve had plans upon plans upon plans, but this one is “as comprehensive as you can get.”

“I think we have now the resources or access to resources to bring this about. And I think we're gonna go. It's gonna go,” he said. “Definitely.”

The plan calls for 11 miles of parks, trails and economic development projects, wrapping around the waterfront all the way from Baltimore Peninsula — what used to be known as Port Covington — past the Horseshoe Casino, Westport and the Wheelabrator Baltimore garbage incinerator, through Cherry Hill down to urban wildlife refuge Masonville Cove in Brooklyn.

The whole transformation project could cost into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Rogers says they already have $150 million worth of work in the pipeline. Some of the money comes from South Baltimore Gateway Partnership’s share of casino revenues, some from a federal grant to restore wetlands and more from state and local sources, including Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Both of those jurisdictions are under a federal obligation to clean up the Baltimore harbor watershed.

Rogers says they have taken different elements of the aspirations of each one of the neighborhoods in our study area,” to craft the plan. That includes 19 different neighborhoods and 30 different parks and public spaces as well as the shoreline.

“And we think how do we stitch this all together into one coherent vision that meets the needs of everybody?” he queried.

Among those needs is access to the water. The neighborhoods of South Baltimore have been divided from the water by highways and rail lines, Rogers says. Residents aren’t able to interact or benefit from development along the waterfront the way Canton or Fells Point residents have on the city’s east side inner harbor.

“So, the neighborhoods down here just want to be able to access and benefit from their waterfront in the same exact way that Fells Point or Canton or Federal Hill are able to with the harbor,” he said.

The plan includes walkways to get past the four lane roads and rail lines that divide the neighborhoods from the water.

Not only have the neighborhoods been divided from the water, but they’ve been divided from each other, Middleton said.

Residents of Cherry Hill, built to house returning Black World War II veterans, rarely had any connection with the white residents of Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, he said. They were divided not only by race, but by highways. This plan aims to change that.

We're looking at trailways that will accompany this development that will take you throughout the Middle Branch,” Middleton said. “We’re being sensitive to connecting the communities itself, which have been historically disconnected.”

Another part of the plan involves environmental justice, Rogers said. And part of that includes the Environmental Justice Journalism Initiative, a non-profit created by Rona Kobell, who covered environmental issues for the Baltimore Sun, and Donzell Brown, a former political operative.

Brown says they want to give residents of black and brown communities a chance to tell the stories of environmental issues that affect them that often are passed over by traditional media.

“We go into these communities, and we ask people to tell their stories of environmental justice themselves,” he explained. “And we give them the tools and the platform to tell their own environmental justice stories instead of somebody swooping in and telling a story for them.” 

They’re operating now out of a low-slung brick building on North Fulton Street, but they have plans to set up in modular offices at the Middle Branch Marina, a rundown marina off Waterview Avenue with crumbling buildings and piers and boats sunk in some of the slips.

Kobell says it may look bad for now, but it has potential and it provides a comprehensive picture of Baltimore “in all of its splendor, and its troubles” from a pier at the marina.

“So, you see beautiful downtown,” she said. “You see the future of Baltimore with Port Covington. You see this gorgeous Hanover Street Bridge that looks like a Roman aqueduct. And then you see the BRESCO plant and you see the pollution. And you see how far we have to go to get this part of the city that's been neglected and cut off with highways and railroads to share the bounty that the rest of Baltimore gets.”

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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