In the coming years, communities along South Baltimore’s Middle Branch waterway could gain amenities that would draw people to the shoreline and better connect neighborhoods, under a plan currently under development.
The “Reimagine Middle Branch Plan” is a multi-year effort seeking to improve more than 11 miles of shoreline along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.
The team hired to develop a master plan for the area — led by James Corner Field Operations — shared preliminary design ideas during a virtual public meeting Wednesday.
It was the first design presentation since Field Operations was brought on to head the consultant team, which was reorganized and expanded after West 8 of Rotterdam bowed out in July 2020. Field Operations is internationally recognized for its work on projects such as the High Line in New York City and Navy Pier in Chicago.
More than 50 people took part in a 90-minute meeting that gave residents and other stakeholders a chance to talk with the planners and respond to the ideas presented, while learning about their design approach.
“We wanted to share these projects with you today as a preview of the long-term vision work” that’s underway, said Megan Born, a landscape architect and urban designer with James Corner Field Operations.
The team wanted to show ideas now to emphasize that “this is an action-oriented project,” Born said. “This is a project on the ground. The idea of Reimagine Middle Branch is happening today. We’re not waiting for this to start in a year or two years’ time.”
The planning effort is led by the City of Baltimore, the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership and the Parks & People Foundation. The improvement area stretches from Curtis Bay and Brooklyn on the south, through Cherry Hill, Westport, Carroll-Camden, Pigtown, Lakeland and Mount Winans on the west, to Sharp-Leadenhall, Federal Hill, Riverside, Locust Point and Port Covington on the north and east.
The concepts ranged from building a more resilient shoreline to creating green boulevards and “complete streets” to forming new neighborhood activity hubs. Born noted that while the drawings they presented in a 12-minute video may look precise, the planners are still at an early stage and nothing is finalized.
“This is all preliminary work,” she stressed. “This is in progress. Some of the drawings may look polished and finished. It’s really just a tool for us to get feedback from you all tonight and from the community members and the public in the coming weeks and months.”
Some of the amenities that the planners propose are a floating pool; an expanded boathouse for rowing; a “kayak house” and boat launch; new and improved piers for fishing and crabbing; and an urban beach.
Planners also envision open lawns for large events; barbecue and picnic areas for cookouts and family gatherings; a destination playground; an African American heritage district centered around Mount Clare mansion; and a sports “shed” to house a wide range of courts, a climbing wall and a roller rink.
The five-lane Hanover Street Bridge would be reconfigured to have fewer lanes for vehicles and new lanes just for cyclists and pedestrians. Mount Winans and Westport would be connected to Port Covington and the south Baltimore peninsula by a new “east-west” bridge.
‘A place of health and vitality’
To help frame the discussion, the planners divided the ideas under consideration into three broad categories, with projects that protect and connect the shoreline; transform barriers into connections; and strengthen communities with new parks and programs.
“We see the Middle Branch as a place of health and vitality, a common ground where people can come together and thrive,” Born said in the presentation. “We seek to reconnect and protect the 11 miles of shoreline for current and future generations.”
Historically, the Middle Branch had a gradual, natural and resilient shoreline edge typical of the Chesapeake Bay. Over time this edge was reshaped and hardened by industry and infrastructure, resulting in a shoreline that today is thin, fragmented, and impacted by trash, highways, vacancy and erosion.
Likewise, the neighborhoods of South Baltimore that surround the Middle Branch — though individually vibrant communities — have been disconnected from one another and the water due to transportation infrastructure and industrial uses.
The ‘protect and connect the shoreline’ category included ideas to improve water quality and implement resiliency measures that protect communities from damaging storms. The design integrates wetlands, breakwaters and resiliency berms to protect nearby neighborhoods from flooding, while continuing to enable boats to access Ridgely’s Cove.
“A reconstructed and reshaped shoreline will improve water quality, absorb floodwater and protect against storm surge, while providing natural habitats for birds and aquatic species, and offering scenic beauty and recreation for Baltimore city residents,” the planners say. “It will be a place for all, that includes a continuous trail system for biking, walking and jogging; boardwalks and piers for fishing, crabbing and taking in the views; and outdoor classrooms and soft footpaths – all offering unique waterside experiences.
The ‘transform barriers into connections’ category included ideas to connect communities along the waterfront, with new and improved roads with dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes, bridges and trails. The plan envisions a new east-west bridge connecting Westport and Mount Winans to Port Covington and the South Baltimore peninsula across Ridgely’s Cove and improvements to the historic Hanover Street Bridge, also known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge. The new bridge across Ridgely’s Cove would include a two-way bike lane and a wide pedestrian path.
“Rebuilding roadways as ‘green boulevards’ will link neighborhoods to one another and to jobs, transit hubs and major destinations in the city and region,” the planners say.
One street the planners seek to transform is Waterview Avenue, which currently separates Cherry Hill from Middle Branch Park and the water with three lanes of traffic.
“Our future vision of Waterview Avenue adds a new tree-lined sidewalk and a protected two-way bike lane while reducing traffic from three lanes to two,” Born said. “Our design adds multiple crossings for safe, easy and universal access to Middle Branch Park from Cherry Hill.”
For the Hanover Street Bridge, the planners propose short-term improvements that remove the middle “flex lane” and add bike lanes, similar to the “Big Jump” changes on 29th Street.
“These interim changes preview a potential future transformation that further reduces traffic lanes and adds a protected bike facility, wide sidewalks and balconies offering incredible views of the downtown skyline and the Middle Branch,” Born said. “Further study is needed to assess what is structurally possible on the bridge.”
The ‘strengthen communities with parks and programs’ category included specific capital projects that would draw people to the water’s edge. Along the shoreline, for example, new piers and upgrades to existing piers are envisioned to increase access to the water. Proposed projects range from an urban beach to a farmers’ market to a sports complex reminiscent of places like the Chelsea Piers complex in Manhattan.
“Reimagine Middle Branch will activate the waterfront with new amenities and bolster neighborhoods with equitable community development projects and programs,” the planners say. “The park destinations will create special places both on the waterfront and within neighborhoods.”
Along with individual improvements, Born said, the planners seek to support communities through equitable development programs that create jobs and improve the quality of life in South Baltimore neighborhoods, including commercial corridor investments; community park improvements facilitated by a local workforce; the creation of an African American heritage district centered at Mount Clare mansion; the relocation and expansion of an existing urban farm to provide plants and trees for use in park projects; and the creation of an incubator for Black and Brown small businesses.
They also see potential for creating a “new social and active heart” for Middle Branch Park between the boathouse and marina, with “expanded boat facilities, food concessions, fishing piers and opportunities for kayaking, canoeing and sailing” and clear links back to Cherry Hill.
The area under study includes 19 neighborhoods and 30 parks. The goal is to create a network of world-class parks, trails and programs along the waterfront, while fostering connections and economic opportunity in adjacent neighborhoods. Planners noted that some improvements already are underway, including a $25 million recreation and wellness center under construction in Cherry Hill, new buildings in Port Covington, and a new trash wheel that launched in March at the mouth of the Gwynns Falls.
The preliminary design ideas were shared with six stakeholder committees at a series of workshops held over the last two weeks. They grew out of a series of meetings the design team had with community residents during smaller neighborhood events over the past three months.
From those sessions, the consultants collected more than 150 survey responses. They also welcomed five graduate-student fellows from Morgan State University to the project and held an in-person event called “Splash!,” which drew more than 200 people to Middle Branch Park on Sept. 12.
Over the next four months, the Reimagine Middle Branch team will take the feedback from the public and stakeholders and prepare draft planning documents, which are scheduled to be released in the spring 2022. Those documents will be used to guide decisions about making future improvements to the shoreline.
The meeting Wednesday started with a presentation by the design team of ideas under consideration for the shoreline. Then the audience broke up into two groups to discuss the ideas and indicate what they liked most. It ended with the participants coming back together to summarize their findings and talk about next steps in the planning effort.
Much of the discussion involved specific projects proposed for the shoreline and where they might go. Participants suggested Swann Park might be a good place for a floating pool and that Reedbird Park in Cherry Hill might be a good area for cookouts and food concessions. Some expressed the view that any large indoor sports facility shouldn’t be directly on the water.
Another topic that drew strong interest was the future of the Hanover Street Bridge. The planners said their goal would be to preserve the character of the historic bridge and that short term changes would be made within the current width of the roadway.
Several participants suggested that the crossing be turned into a pedestrian-only bridge and that a new bridge be constructed for vehicular traffic. Another suggestion from the audience was to protect and perhaps expand the marina along the Middle Branch, since some people live on their boats there.
Planners also talked at some length about economic opportunities that could come out of the planning effort, from jobs in areas such as aquaculture and landscaping to commercial revitalization of communities adjacent to the shoreline.
More information about the Reimagine Middle Branch planning effort is available at reimaginemb.com.
Great article. Thank you for the detail. But is there any way on God’s green earth any of this stuff ever gets built? I want to believe!
Nice water’s edge tidal marsh interface for Chesapeake Bay region. We need in general to upgrade our ecological design approach to the soft flexible edge of the Bay and it’s tributaries.
Ed Gunts has been investigating and reporting on the various plans for Middle Branch for 20 years. I am glad to see that he is still following this and writing.
I have several concerns that I feel are being overlooked. One is the historic integrity of the local historic landmark, Hanover Street Bridge.
The bridge is not engineered to accommodate heavy semi -tractor trailer traffic from the 95 exit to Rte 2 /Curtis Bay. The planners show Hanover Street Bridge being widened to accommodate bikes and pedestrians. This is not economically reasonable and would sacrifice the historic integrity
of the bridge.
There are 2 historic radio towers at the Middle Branch Marina which have not been mentioned and being completely overlooked. They are also local landmarks.
The privately owned Middle Branch Marina seem to be completely overlooked as well. The new plans call for small city- owned public marina and market concession area in the marina parking lot.
Middle branch Marina is a community of many African- American boat owners and others that live in their boats. As a member of this community, I feel that the needs this community are not being included at all by Reimagine Middle Branch.
And lastly the other important member of the community is the Baltimore Rowing Club. Their racing and practice course spans from swing bridge all the way out past Hanover Street Bridge. Several rowing groups practice from sunrise to sundown.
It is obvious that these two established communities at Middle Branch are not being included or respected. The planners need to spend time at the rowing club and marina to find out what their uses are and how that will affect the plans.
CHAP also needs to be involved.
Biologists also need to determine if the existing aquatic inhabitants and migrants require open water or more wetlands, and how that balance will affect fish, crab and bird migration.
they are converting hanover bridge to walkway and build new bridge from very old bridge location i think light street bridge.
Nice article by Ed Gunts who has been following the plans for Middle Branch for over 15 years.
Iam very skeptical because of our corrupted government. They can’t get the money to the baltimore city schools and city’s roads in the last 100 years. Our wonderful politicians steal the money before we can do any renovations. I definitely didn’t vote them in office. Hogan is the only honest one of the bunch. He’s seems to be getting side tracked too.
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