A sweeping vision to revitalize south Baltimore’s shoreline and 19 adjacent communities has been officially endorsed by the city.
Baltimore’s Planning Commission voted 7 to 0 on Thursday to adopt a master plan developed to improve 11 miles of shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in south Baltimore.
The commission meeting was the culmination of a multi-year effort led by a consortium of stakeholders from the public and private sectors.
Its vote means the Reimagine Middle Branch Plan now has the formal backing of Baltimore’s government, affirmation that will assist in both funding and implementation. No other public body has to vote on the plan, and no legislation must be signed into law for it to take effect.
The vote signals a commitment by Baltimore City and its partners to deliver parks, projects, and programs that unite 19 neighborhoods in South Baltimore by reconnecting them to one another and to the Middle Branch waterfront.
“The Reimagine Middle Branch initiative represents a transformative step towards creating a more equitable, just, and resilient public space that provides access to recreational and wellness opportunities for communities that have endured disproportionate environmental harm,” said Mayor Brandon M. Scott, in a statement after the meeting.
“This marks a significant moment for South Baltimore, showcasing the power of collaboration and consensus-building through the contributions of community leaders, residents, institutions, and young people,” Scott said.
“It’s a great vision. It’s a great plan. You’ve got great recommendations in the plan,” said commission chair Sean Davis, before the vote.
The Reimagine Middle Branch effort is led by the City of Baltimore and the non-profit South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, working in collaboration with Parks & People, the South Baltimore 7 Coalition (SB7), federal and state agencies, and a variety of other local organizations.
The lead design consultants were James Corner Field Operations of New York, an internationally renowned landscape architecture and urban design firm, and Mahan Rykiel Associates of Baltimore. Field Operations replaced the team originally selected to lead the design effort, West 8 of Rotterdam.
More than 150 residents and technical experts served on advisory committees, and more than 1,000 community members have actively participated via surveys, events, and public input sessions.
One difference between this plan and previous ones for the Middle Branch is the extent to which ideas came from community residents who live along the shoreline and will be most affected by the outcome of the planning effort, said Michael Middleton, president and CEO of SB7 and former executive director of the Cherry Hill Economic Development Corporation.
“In the past, communities in South Baltimore have been left out of conversations affecting the future of their neighborhoods,” Middleton said in a statement. “This is not the case with this plan, which has been proactive in not only communicating with the community, but also in actively involving them in shaping of the future of the area. It’s exciting to see the needs and voices of the communities reflected in this plan after so much intentional, historical disinvestment.”
The plan’s five volumes center on a “Design Vision” and “Implementation Strategy” for realizing a more equitable, environmentally just, resilient, and healthy future for South Baltimore.
The Design Vision calls for a new world-class open space network, or “park-shed,” for South Baltimore; increased connectivity achieved through trails and Complete Streets; resiliency to climate change and restoration of local ecological systems; and leveraging of private development projects to create public amenities and spark new forms of equity-based development.
Representatives say engagement with a variety of partners and stakeholders was key to the planning process and was accomplished through various platforms: multiple advisory committees including a Community Advisory Committee; direct outreach with community associations, residents, and other stakeholder groups; social media and surveys; exhibiting at community events; hosting public information sessions.
Members of the public provided their input through several hundred responses to surveys and provided real-time feedback during the information sessions at key milestones over the course of the 18-month planning process. The latest public information sessions took place in December 2022. In addition, the planning process incorporated paid internships for Morgan State University graduate students and local high school students, who helped highlight issues of concern to community residents while gaining experience in environmental design and planning.
The Implementation Strategy covers four areas of focus to address how, when, and by whom the interrelated elements of the plan will be accomplished.
The Funding Strategy highlights $165 million worth of projects and initiatives already completed or currently underway. The Phasing Strategy maps the transformation of the area over four time periods during the next 20 years. The Permitting Strategy addresses the complex regulatory framework for building projects in and near the Middle Branch, and the Management and Stewardship Strategy proposes tools and tactics for managing and maintaining these new resources.
Funding for the plan itself as well as seed money for a number of related initiatives comes from Casino Local Impact Grants, managed by the City of Baltimore and the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership. A 2020 Maryland State Capital Grant also supported work on the plan.
“What distinguishes this project is its implementability — the fact that we have $165 million worth of work in the pipeline, which we’re already delivering,” Brad Rogers, executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, told the commission.
“What I want to share with the planning commission is that there is a firm, detailed vision for implementation and one that does not require us to come constantly to the general fund to keep this project moving. We have the luxury of casino revenues, which are allowing us to bring in huge amounts of revenue from outside sources, so I think we’re going to be able to move far faster than other ambitious projects.”
With the plan’s formal adoption, “we now have the wind at our backs” in terms of seeking approvals for individual projects, he said. “It’s endorsed. It’s the direction the city is moving in, and so we can now look at projects and say, does it align with that vision or does it conflict with that vision?”
Work already underway
Projects already underway include Phase 1 of the Middle Branch Resiliency Initiative (MBRI), which has received a total of $48 million in federal, state, and local funding. MBRI will support new climate resiliency improvements, such as marshes and planted berms that will protect land and infrastructure around MedStar Harbor Hospital and BGE’s Spring Garden facility. Projects already in place include the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center and BGE Field at Reedbird Park in Cherry Hill.
Concentrating on investments in South Baltimore’s traditionally underfunded Black and Brown communities, the plan integrates construction projects with strategies for job creation, support for small businesses, and equitable economic development.
“The Reimagine Middle Branch Plan couples new parks and amenities with direct support for local businesses and workforce development,” Rogers said. “By supporting local workforce development and business incubation opportunities today and into the future, we look to influence the upward mobilization of the 19 surrounding communities directly.”
Other capital projects include a new boathouse in Cherry Hill; a new East-West Pedestrian Bridge between Westport and Baltimore Peninsula/Port Covington, and a “living shoreline” trail linking the Middle Branch Boathouse to the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center, ultimately meeting up with the Baybrook Connector Trail through Brooklyn to the BWI Trail in Anne Arundel County.
Future park projects include a new Baltimore Black Sox Park in Westport, which was home to Negro League baseball teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This initiative is being led by Parks & People and will help anchor an African American Heritage District incorporating other significant sites, such as Mount Auburn Cemetery, Leadenhall Baptist Church, and the Riverside Park Pool, where the late U. S. Rep. Elijah Cummings in his youth demonstrated against the policy of racial segregation in Baltimore City parks.
Honoring the Baltimore Black Sox “is an important part of recognizing the significance of African American history in South Baltimore and bringing these stories to the forefront,” said Frank Lance, president and CEO of Parks & People. “Highlighting the accomplishments of the Black Sox and other culturally important sites in the Heritage District will be a step towards more equitable story-telling of the Middle Branch and Baltimore.”
A ‘living’ document
In some cases, adoption of the plan shows how city officials would prefer to proceed with various initiatives that the community residents want to see, such as a new boathouse to replace a 1980s structure that’s no longer big enough to accommodate the Baltimore Rowing Club and others.
Several years ago, before the Reimagine Middle Branch effort got underway, private developers explored the idea of moving the boathouse from Cherry Hill to Port Covington, a project that never materialized. By adopting a master plan that shows a possible new boathouse in Cherry Hill, the city in effect is endorsing the idea of keeping the boathouse on that side of the Middle Branch.
The master plan also recommends a way to reconfigure traffic patterns on the Hanover Street Bridge to add room for pedestrians and cyclists. By adopting the master plan, city officials are signaling their acceptance of the lane reconfiguration shown in the plan.
At the same time, the plan is intended to be a “living document” that’s flexible enough to respond to changing needs and budgets, said Jazmin Kimble, southern district planner for the city’s planning department.
The Reimagine Middle Branch Plan is available on the project’s website – ReimagineMB.com. It is currently still marked “draft plan” on the site, but that will be updated, Rogers said. The plan can be read in printed form at the Washington Village/Pigtown, Brooklyn, Light Street, and Cherry Hill branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and at the Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center, located at 201 Reedbird Avenue.
As the plan shifts more fully into the implementation mode, representatives say, the project team will continue to engage community residents, stakeholder groups, and technical experts in the development of individual projects and initiatives.
For now, “we’re just happy and thrilled with the results and excited to see all of this…implemented,” said Megan Born, associate partner of James Corner Field Operations.
The consensus among participants is key, Rogers said.
“The real important thing is that we are all in lockstep. We are all doing this together…The Planning Commission was fully on board. The communities have been fully on board. The landowners have been fully on board…It’s obviously what we needed to do.”