Middle Branch Park will offer boating, fishing, gatherings and events, and include pedestrian and bike connections to Cherry Hill along Waterview Avenue. Image credit: James Corner Field Operations.

A new boathouse, a park named after the old Baltimore Black Sox baseball team and an African American heritage trail are among the ideas under consideration for the revitalization of the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River shoreline in South Baltimore.

Designers working on a master plan to guide improvements along the Middle Branch unveiled ideas for parks and trails, ecological restoration and economic development initiatives during a recent virtual public meeting with community residents and other stakeholders.

The February 24 presentation was the second public session in the “Reimagine Middle Branch” planning process led by James Corner Field Operations, an internationally renowned landscape architecture and urban design firm. The meeting was hosted by the City of Baltimore, the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, and the Parks & People Foundation.

“Our work to ‘reimagine Middle Branch’ is a key component of our larger strategies to revamp and reinvigorate recreation opportunities and outdoor spaces throughout our city,” said Mayor Brandon M. Scott, in a statement.

“This is about providing clean, accessible, and modern spaces that show our residents, particularly our young people, that they matter. That we care about them and are going to do everything in our power to give them the best quality-of-life possible.”

The Reimagine Middle Branch plan builds on earlier community planning efforts and capital investments, such as the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center under construction in Reedbird Park, including community residents and other stakeholders at every step of the planning process.

“The City of Baltimore, South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, and their community partners are boldly envisioning an area of improved parks and shorelines supported by equitable economic development throughout the neighborhoods. It’s a holistic approach,” said Megan Born, Senior Associate with James Corner Field Operations, in a statement.

The plan leverages existing strengths and assets, such as local businesses and neighborhood parks, and identifies new opportunities for investment inspired by the community’s suggestions.

“The plan integrates physical planning with economic development that prioritizes job creation, entrepreneurism and increasing the future earning potential of local residents,” said Brad Rogers, Executive Director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership.

“Alongside new public space amenities, we are equally focused on local workforce development and business incubation opportunities, such as green jobs involved in maintaining and monitoring the restored wetlands, and pop-up markets for local vendors.”

A primary goal of Reimagine Middle Branch is to create parks, projects and programs that unite the 19 neighborhoods of South Baltimore by connecting them to one another and to the waterfront. The plan’s recommendations fit within a framework of three guiding principles: Protect and Connect the Shoreline; Transform Barriers into Connections; and Strengthen Communities with Parks and Programs.

An expanded boathouse and new piers will offer more opportunities for rowing, kayaking and canoeing. Image credit: James Corner Field Operations.

During the meeting, the design team led a virtual walk-through highlighting proposed initiatives and improvements for the shoreline and for neighborhoods surrounding the Middle Branch, from Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, to Cherry Hill and Westport, to Pigtown and Carroll Park, Sharp-Leadenhall, and Port Covington.

Three “Priority Project Zones” were presented, detailing Reimagine Middle Branch’s emerging design concepts, as well as initiatives already underway that intersect with the project’s goals. The zones include:

An expanded Middle Branch Park: In Cherry Hill, the plan centers on an expanded Middle Branch Park that stretches from the shoreline around Medstar Harbor Hospital to the Westport waterfront. Traffic calming measures in the Hanover/Potee Street corridor and new access points bring Reedbird Island and Brooklyn’s other shoreline spaces into the expanded park network.

For the heart of the Middle Branch Park, planners envision a range of improvements, including a new boathouse, improved boating and fishing piers, and an expanded playground.

A new play space near the boathouse in Middle Branch Park. Image credit: James Corner Field Operations.

The existing boathouse has been targeted for conversion to a food hall or marketplace. An open-air pavilion would be built to accommodate large gatherings such as family reunions. “Complete streets” treatments for Waterview Avenue, including a new intersection at Seamon Avenue, have been recommended to enhance pedestrian safety and access between Cherry Hill and Middle Branch Park.

Work is underway to create an improved waterfront trail with separate bike and pedestrian lanes that will connect these areas. From the trail, boardwalks and overlooks would provide access to marshes and other features of a new “living shoreline.”

The Middle Branch Marina is proposed to be reconfigured and opened to a mix of public and private uses, maintaining the live-aboard community there today while adding educational and recreational programming. West of the marina in Smith Cove, the design features restored marshes and Chesapeake maritime forests, fishing piers, pavilions, and a nature-based playground.

Taken together, planners say, these improvements would comprise a regional-scale park connected to neighborhoods south and west of the Middle Branch.

Ridgely’s Cove: Besides providing open space adjacent to private developments in Westport and Port Covington, shoreline improvements will extend north to Ridgely’s Cove, where large expanses of marsh will form a “maritime park” that also functions as green-stormwater infrastructure and creates a new natural area at the mouth of the Gwynns Falls.

The proposed trail network in Ridgley’s Cove includes boardwalks and a new east-west pedestrian bridge that connects Westport with Port Covington, and links three parks: Black Sox Park to the west, Swann Park to the east and a new “Underpass Park” at Stockholm and Sharp Streets.

The East-West Pedestrian Bridge will connect Westport and Mt. Winans to Port Covington over Ridgley’s Cove.
Image credit: James Corner Field Operations.

Named for the Negro League Baseball team that used to play there, Black Sox Park offers the opportunity for a range of activation, from a youth baseball field to a set of trails winding through woodlands and wetlands. An African American Heritage Trail connects the park to other historically and culturally significant sites.

Across Ridgely’s Cove, Swann Park will be reoriented to the water, with a beach, canoe and kayak launch and boat rentals. Underpass Park would provide communities to the north of the Middle Branch with a new waterfront open space that includes a skate park, sports courts, and boat launch.

The Loop Trail: The Loop Trail will connect all of these parks and open spaces with bike and walking trails, creating an 11-mile circuit around the Middle Branch that connects to regional trails, including the Gwynns Falls Trail to the northwest and the BWI and East Coast Greenway trails to the south.

Besides providing connections and recreational opportunities, segments of the trail network will tell a story about South Baltimore’s culture and history, linking significant places and offering cultural programming.

A restored shoreline and improved trail will connect Middle Branch Park to the new Cherry Hill Fitness and Wellness Center in front of Harbor Hospital. Image credit: James Corner Field Operations.

These projects were gleaned from suggestions received from resident and stakeholder groups as well as experts in various scientific fields. Their shared vision is intended to guide improvements along the Middle Branch for the next five years or more.

Funding for Reimagine Middle Branch comes from a mix of sources, including casino local impact grant funds and a Maryland state capital grant. Casino impact grants also contribute to the $25 million total construction cost of the Fitness and Wellness Center and adjacent sports field complex. A mix of federal, state, and local grants have been secured for wetland construction and trail projects.

More information about the Reimagine Middle Branch project is available at https://reimaginemb.com/.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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