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In Midtown, plans to turn wasteland into wonderland

Public TransportationArtscapeJones Falls ExpresswayMeyerhoff Symphony HallDan DeaconGrand Prix of BaltimoreBaltimore School for the Arts

Walk through a graffiti-tagged corridor, under a light rail bridge, past the cars hurtling down the Jones Falls Expressway and you've entered what some believe could become a wonderland.

A group called Section 1 envisions a skate park built under a labyrinth of highway support columns. They see concrete walls as canvases for street artists. A weedy lot, the setting for food truck rallies and art fairs. And an overgrown field near CSX tracks could hold a concert stage with space for an audience of thousands.

They hope to turn this hidden 31/2-acre lot, tucked between Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill, into what they believe would be the world's largest art park.

"This is many people's entrance to Baltimore," said Richard Best, Section 1's founder and executive director. "We want them to see good stuff as they come in."

As Best and a collaborator, Toby Blumenthal, led visitors on a tour this week, the ground was strewn with litter. Feral cats skittered into weeds. A man in rumpled clothes appeared, warning that the police would arrest trespassers.

But Best, a 31-year-old Army veteran and former military contractor, sees only promise here. He hopes to persuade the land's owner, the Maryland Transit Administration, to lease the plot and allow his team to transform it.

He would like to complete an initial phase of the project — cleaning up the site and fencing off hazardous areas — in time for next summer's Artscape festival.

While the Section 1 team has yet to come up with a cost estimate, the project has garnered support from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and developer Toby Bozzuto. A spokesman said the University of Baltimore also applauded the concept. Even Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office says she is intrigued.

"It's a junk piece of land," said Section 1's president, developer Sam Polakoff, who served as the project manager for the Baltimore School for the Arts' $30 million renovation. "That makes it easier for everyone to buy in."

An MTA spokesman said the agency was in "continued discussions" with Section 1 but had not made a final decision.

"They need to supply us with more information so we can properly analyze the request. When the final proposal is in, it will be reviewed by multiple departments within MTA. But we continue to talk with Section 1 about the project in the meantime," spokesman Paul Shepard said in an email.

Best, a Station North resident, conceived of the park while he was a student in a dual graduate program run by the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute College of Art. He graduated from the program in the spring with Master of Business Administration and Master of Arts degrees.

A street artist friend invited Best to meet him in the space, which can be reached by a path that begins behind The Fitzgerald apartment building.

"He gave me this treasure map," said Best. "I never even knew this place was there, and suddenly I was in this endless, massive space."

The walkway heading into the plot is visible from southbound Interstate 83 as you approach the Maryland Avenue exit. The tops of trees from a wooded section of the lot can be seen below the highway when heading north toward the 28th Street exit. The land is bounded by train tracks, and, behind a thicket, the muddy gush of the Jones Falls.

Best began working on his plan during graduate school, drawing up proposals and speaking with stakeholders as part of his course work. He drew inspiration from projects such as New York City's High Line, which turned an elevated train track into a skinny park, and Miami's Wynwood Walls, a massive street art project that has revitalized a once-derelict neighborhood.

Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, sees similarities between Section 1 and the Baltimore Farmers' Market, which his office runs under another section of highway overpass.

"I think it has potential as an art park," said Gilmore, who has accompanied the team and MTA officials on site visits. Gilmore said he was less certain of the feasibility of holding large concerts in the site, because of the challenges of creating sufficient entrances and exits to the space.

A spokeswoman said Rawlings-Blake "looks forward to learning more about the organizers' plans for this area."

"The concept is intriguing; however, there are still steps that the organizers must take to bring this idea to fruition," spokeswoman Caron Brace said in an email, adding that the team is slated to meet with transportation officials and have further meetings with Gilmore's organization in the coming week.

David Gracyalny, dean of MICA's School for Professional and Continuing Studies, said he was impressed by Best's dedication to the project.

"I'm absolutely certain that this project will come to fruition," Gracyalny said. "He is a can-do guy, and he is full-throttle on this project. Richard has this great idea, and he's actually going to make it happen."

The Section 1 team has received some early financial support for the project. MICA awarded Best $10,000 in seed money. The team set up an information booth on the grounds of The Fitzgerald during Artscape and raised an additional $10,000 by selling 2,000 bricks for $5 each.

The group plans to seek grants and donations, and hold a fundraiser on a crowdfunding site such as Kickstarter. It's in the process of applying for nonprofit status, said Best.

Bozzuto, president of the Bozzuto Group, the Maryland-based national homebuilder, said he was a "big supporter of the project." His company built and owns The Fitzgerald, and Section 1 seeks to use a portion of the building's property as a pathway.

"If you could turn blight into beauty, it would enrich the neighborhood," Bozzuto said. "I would be for it even if I didn't have an adjacency or an economic interest in the neighborhood."

Polakoff, the managing director of Cormony Development, said the team was still calculating the project's cost. Engineers and contractors are determining the precise boundaries of the site. They are also conducting a preliminary environmental remediation study, as the land has likely been contaminated by industrial pollutants.

Polakoff and Best said they want those who plan to use the park to choose what features it will have. They hope to begin seeking community input in the coming weeks. Even the name of the park would be selected from ideas submitted by the public.

"Everything we do will be community-centric," said Best, who hopes to formally begin soliciting ideas for the space in the coming months.

But while Best will leave some specifics up to users, he has clear ideas for the park's basic concept. Space for graffiti art and street art is essential. Some walls would be reserved for larger, more permanent pieces, while others would be painted over many times.

At least two stages would host musical performances — a smaller venue closer to the entrance, and a larger area near the far edge of the property. As many as 3,000 to 5,000 people would be able to view the larger stage, Best said.

Blumenthal, the director of rentals and presentations for the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, envisions big-name acts from Baltimore such as Dan Deacon, Beach House, TT the Artist and Animal Collective performing at the site. The larger stage would be sheltered from the noise of automobile traffic. Only the clatter of an occasional CSX train disturbs the quiet.

Trees grow over the land now, and Best said he planned to preserve green space. He wants to construct offices and bathrooms from old shipping containers and even possibly use the miles of metal fencing left over from the Baltimore Grand Prix.

"We like recycling bits of Baltimore's history into its future," he said.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

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