Urban Trail Should Go in the 33rd Street Median, Planners Recommend

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Artist’s rendering via Rails to Trails Conservancy

Planners designing a new urban trail to connect Lake Montebello with Wyman Park announced last night that they have come up with a preferred approach for further study: Building the trail in the 33rd Street median, rather than displacing a parking lane in the street itself.

Liz Gordon, a representative of Kittelson & Associates, a firm working on the trail project, told more than 200 people gathered at the 29th Street Community Center that the design team had been exploring two options for the trail, but will now focus on one: modifying the median.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy and others are leading the effort to create an urban trail network that will better connect Lake Montebello with neighborhoods to the west such as Charles Village, Oakenshawe, Waverly and Ednor Gardens, using 33rd Street as a circulation spine.

As part of their work, the planners wanted to determine the best way to provide a dedicated cycle track along 33rd Street between Lake Montebello and Wyman Park.

Gordon said the planners made their decision about the trail’s location after attending a series of community meetings in neighborhoods along the corridor.

At a recent meeting in Waverly, community residents were presented with two ideas for the trail, which would also serve also a cycle track. One approach was to create a two-way cycle track on the north side of 33rd Street by eliminating on-street parking in front of the houses on that side. The second was to create a center path or trail down the middle of the median, a change that would involve installing a linear “hardscape” or gravel surface where there is now grass. The trail would be about 12 feet wide.

Gordon said the community reaction to the two concepts has been divided. But based on comments during and following the meetings, she said, “the approach we’re recommending for further study is the center-running multi-use trail” in the median.

Resident gather at a meeting at the 29th Street Community Center to discuss plans for a cycle track in the 33rd Street corridor.

The corridor is historically significant as one of the major green spaces created in Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s 1904 vision for Baltimore’s parks system. The median in the middle of 33rd Street is wider than most in the city and has dozens of mature trees, adding to the parkway ambiance. In 2015, Baltimore’s preservation commission gave the corridor landmark status.

The latest planning effort comes as cycle tracks have been installed along Roland Avenue and Maryland Avenue. Residents along 33rd Street say they hope to avoid some of the controversy that surrounded those designs, which require cars to park away from the curbs in front of homes and businesses.

Gordon said the planners are aware of concerns about the effect of any new trail on the health of mature trees in the median and the loss of grass. She introduced a landscape architect from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, Sarah Hope, who said she shares the community’s concern about preventing the death of trees.

Jim Brown, who is heading the project for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, said no decisions have been made about what materials would be used for the trail surface. He showed images of trails in other cities that have been created in areas comparable to 33rd Street. He said one possibility is creating a “floating trail” that wouldn’t damage tree roots. He also said the 33rd Street trail will be accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The idea of putting a trail down the 33rd Street median was questioned by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the communities along the 33rd Street corridor.

Clarke noted the city’s preservation commission recently voted to protect the 33rd Street corridor by giving it landmark designation. She said it doesn’t make sense to her that planners would want to remove grass from a median the city has voted to protect.

“I am very concerned about the idea of running a trail down the middle of the median that we have tried to preserve so it wouldn’t be destroyed,” Clarke said. “I don’t know how this can happen.”

Clarke said she can also see why residents don’t want to lose a lane of parking in front of their houses. “I guess I have a foot in both paths, but I guess I am leaning on the foot that’s on the grass,” she said. “I am trying to make sure that what we preserved stays preserved.”

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke speaks to residents at the meeting.

During the meeting, the planners gave community residents a chance to express their opinions about the options for the trail. Nineteen people lined up to do so. Some said they liked the idea of putting the trail in the median because they don’t want to lose parking in front of their houses.

One woman said her husband “has a handicap and he doesn’t need to be finding somewhere to park.” Another speaker said she supports putting a trail in the median as long as it has a porous surface.

Many of those who spoke questioned the proposed changes to the median and said they didn’t want to lose grass or trees.

Bea Thompson, who lives near Loch Raven Boulevard and Gorsuch Avenue, said she doesn’t want the trail to have a concrete surface.

“What guarantee would we have that it won’t be concrete?” she asked. “If it is concrete, it will kill the trees.”

Ilene Franch said she is concerned about protecting the grass in the median.

“I think it’s ironic that a group that’s concerned about preserving the median is talking about removing the grass,” she said.

Leanna Wetmore said she chose to live on 33rd Street specifically because of the median. “I bought my house because of the green corridor in front of me,” she said. “I would hate to see 12 feet of it removed.”

Daisy McLean said she is concerned about the trees in the median.

Because of the preservation commission’s action, she said, “this is a historical community now,” she said. “If you are going to remove the historical trees, what are you going to replace them with?”

Ben Frederick III, an avid cyclist, suggested that planners use 34th Street for the trail, rather than altering 33rd Street. “It would be safer for the cyclists,” he said.

Another woman suggested using 32nd Street for the trail. “Please consider rerouting it,” she said. “It’s not too late.”

A speaker named John, who said he was an advocate for Clifton Park, said he wanted to see 33rd Street stay green. “We need more green, not more pavement,” he said. “There is enough pavement already to accommodate bikes.”

A resident from Coldstream Homestead Montebello warned that dirt bikers will want to “rip and race” in the median.

Former City Councilman Jim Kraft, who represented Southeast Baltimore as an elected official but grew up in Waverly, said he’s concerned about the loss of trees and grass. “You can’t get the grass back. You can’t get the trees back” once they’re gone, he warned. “We had that fight in Patterson Park.”

Brown, the Rails to Trails Conservancy representative, said he was encouraged to see so many people at the meeting with strong opinions about the 33rd Street corridor.

He told the group there will be many more meetings before any construction begins, and the final design will have to be approved by the city’s parks department and preservation commission.

“Nothing will happen until it gets approved,” he said.

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