A plan to update the swimming pool at Druid Hill Park is drawing community support, but some residents are questioning the need for a 79-space parking lot.
The Druid Hill Aquatic Center is slated to undergo renovations to its main pools and mechanical systems and add a new bathhouse and kiddie splash pool. But the project would also add dozens parking spaces around the tennis courts across East Drive from the aquatic center, leaving several community groups concerned about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists amidst increased vehicle traffic.
The Board of Estimates on Wednesday was set to award a $10.1 million contract for the Druid Hill Aquatic Center project, including the installation of a parking lot across the street. Approval of that contract was deferred until Feb. 26.
City Council President Brandon Scott, who serves as president of that board, said he was prepared to move the contract to “non-routine” items so it would receive public discussion. He felt the Department of Recreation and Parks had not yet sufficiently gathered input from community members about the project, nor had the Land Use Committee approved an ordinance for the parking lot.
“I don’t think the contract should have been moving while the council was still debating the bill … I think [Rec and Parks] are putting the cart before the horse,” he said.
But before Scott was able to move the contract to “non-routine,” fellow BOE member Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young deferred approval of the contract until Feb. 26 without explanation.
The mayor’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
Whitney Brown, the public information officer for Rec and Parks, said the parking lot was proposed in accordance with building code requirements and an expected growth of demand as the pool’s capacity increases from 300 users to 500 users. Those people come from across the city, Brown said.
“I think that it should be understood that this is a regional facility that draws people from all over and it is our experience that many drive to it,” she said. “The expanded capacity will only increase the number of people and therefore the number of vehicles. Year over year, parking and traffic surrounding the Druid Hill Park Pool is a major issue. There are also no bus stops in close proximity currently. The safety of summer campers and pool goers is one of many top priorities.”
But Councilman Ryan Dorsey (District 3) said a lack of bus stops is not a good reason to create a parking lot in Druid Hill Park, rather it is a reason to increase public transit options in the area.
Dorsey has been a vocal opponent to car-oriented city design and an advocate for improving public transit and creating transportation options that do not cater to single occupancy vehicles.
During a City Council hearing on Jan. 15, Dorsey raised concerns about the proposed parking lot. The Land Use Committee subsequently postponed its vote on the parking lot until more community input was gathered.
Before that hearing, Brown said the project had been reviewed and approved by the Site Plan Review Committee, Planning Commission and permit review agencies. She said Rec and Parks decided to put the project out to bid without the ordinance approval to maintain the timeline for the project, which is expected to begin construction in spring 2020 and have the pool completed by summer 2022.
If Rec and Parks decides to remove the parking lot component from the project or the Land Use Committee votes down the parking lot ordinance, Brown said the city would then ask the contractor for a credit for the work they would not be performing. In other words, the city would take the $10.1 million bid price, subtract the dollar amount of what the parking lot construction would have cost, and calculate the new price of the contractor’s work for the aquatic center and other pieces of the project not related to the parking lot.
She added that removing the parking lot from the building permit would require additional design work and stormwater review that would delay the start of construction.
“If Rec and Parks put a project out to bid for a contract to perform work that they did not have permission to do, I would say that was a mistake on their part,” Dorsey said.
He suggested that instead of a parking lot, the city should invest in a seasonal shuttle service in and out of the park that connects Mondawmin, a major transit hub with surface parking of its own, with other neighborhoods such as Remington and Reservoir Hill.
Dorsey said building a parking lot in Druid Hill Park does not fill any current need, but it will contribute to “induced traffic.”
“The more space you create for cars, the greater the induced demand is for car usage,” he said. “So it’s clear that if we build a parking lot, just like if we widened roads, more people will drive cars to and in those areas.”
Like other opponents to the parking lot, Dorsey also suggested improving walking and bike access and reducing overall vehicle access to the park to make non-car users safer.
Members of community groups surrounding Druid Hill Park—including the Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA), east of the park, and the Auchentoroly Terrace Association, southwest of the park—told Baltimore Fishbowl they questioned whether a parking lot was safe or even necessary in the park.
K.C. Kelleher, land use committee chair for GRIA, said installing a parking lot in what is currently green space “doesn’t seem like it’s being the best utilization of funds.”
“We are absolutely in support of making Druid Hill Park Aquatic Center a destination,” she said. “We’re so excited that we’re going to have that adjacent to our community—but at what cost? Why are we also, in that same vein of trying to make something a destination for people, paving over a historic green space?”
Jed Weeks, a GRIA board member who also serves as the policy director for the cycling advocacy group Bikemore, said the roadways surrounding the park already create obstacles to many Remington residents who want to use the park.
“Right now we have a lot of community members that don’t feel safe walking or biking into the park, so they end up driving,” he said. “But they would walk or bike if there were safer, better lighted routes that had lower traffic speeds on them.”
Graham Coreil-Allen, a member of the Auchentoroly Terrace Association representing neighborhoods along the western edge of the park, said renovating the Druid Hill Aquatic Center would turn the swimming facilities into a “top quality destination for our residents.” But he lamented how the many lanes dedicated to car traffic already make it hard to access for pedestrians and cyclists entering from the west, and he worried that a parking lot would just exacerbate that problem.
“A lot of folks actually just don’t go to the park because walking across the street means taking your life into your own hands,” he said.
Since the 1948 construction of the Druid Hill Expressway and the 1963 construction of the Jones Falls Expressway, Druid Hill Park has lost 16 of its pedestrian entries. Today, there are eight park entrances that are accessible to pedestrians, according to The Access Project (TAP) for Druid Hill Park, a local group striving to improve safe access to the park.
Kelleher, Weeks and Coreil-Allen all suggested getting permission from the Stieff Silver and Boy Scouts of America offices across the Wyman Park Drive bridge to use their parking spaces, currently private lots, as overflow parking for Druid Hill Park on the weekends and other times not in use by those business and organizations.
As a last resort, Weeks said the city could create reverse-angle parking along existing roadways in the park, such as the East Drive. Doing so would increase the amount of available parking for those who cannot walk or bike to the park while also narrowing the roadway to reduce motorists’ speed, he said.
“I think [the aquatic center] can be a great citywide asset and I think there are ways that we can ensure that families and people with disabilities and others can still park within a reasonable distance from the pool and be prioritized without building new surface parking,” Weeks said, adding that any money saved from not building parking spaces could be redirected into the aquatic center or other recreation resources.
Rec and Parks is hosting a community forum about the Druid Hill Park Aquatic Center project from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at the department’s office, located at 3001 East Drive.
But by the time the forum was announced, GRIA had already scheduled a forum for the 12th and 14th councilmanic district candidates that same night from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Church of the Guardian Angel, located at 2629 Huntingdon Ave.
Weeks said Rec and Parks did not contact the GRIA board to schedule the Druid Hill forum.
“Not only can our community members not be present at the Rec and Parks meeting, but the elected officials representing all of Remington—who are current elected officials or running for office—will be at our meeting participating in a forum instead of being able to go to the community forum,” he said.
Brown said the department landed on that date “with the greater community in mind.”
“We wanted to be sure all of our subject matter experts and those who oversee the development of the project would be able to attend and be involved but also get a date that addresses feedback in a timely fashion in an effort to not to delay the improvements,” she said. “It was not our goal to exclude anyone or any groups from the conversation.”
Coreil-Allen said Rec and Parks should have engaged more with community groups when planning the forum to ensure the greatest amount of people could attend. But he said he is hopeful that the fact that the department is holding the meeting demonstrates their commitment to listening to community input on the project.
“I think they are thinking creatively and they definitely are here in the community and that’s why they’re pulling together this meeting,” he said.