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A patch of green brightens Broadway East

Broadway Theater

A new urban park is bringing a patch of green to a once-blighted corner of Broadway East, a project organizers hope can be a model for improving the quality of life and reducing pollution in other distressed Baltimore neighborhoods.

Trees are to be planted today at the corner of Gay and Federal streets, on a third of an acre where until a few years ago 18 mostly dilapidated rowhouses had stood. Community and nonprofit leaders, elected officials and others who live, worship and work in the area are expected to be on hand to help with landscaping the New Broadway East Community Park.

"We're excited about it," said Virgie Williams, who is co-chair of the "Green Space" ministry for Southern Baptist Church, across Gay Street from the project. "The park should be a great asset for the community."

The park's development has been a joint venture coordinated by Parks & People Foundation, the nonprofit that works to promote greening of neighborhoods and outdoor recreation. Its partners included the city, the New Broadway East community association and Humanim, the social-services nonprofit whose renovation of the 19th-century American Brewery building on Gay Street has been a catalyst for efforts to revitalize the neighborhood — and for this park.

Oddly enough, for a group with "parks" in its name, this is the first one Parks & People has developed, according to Guy Hager, senior director of the foundation's "great parks, clean streams and green communities" program. The project sprang out of a retreat the foundation had at Humanim's brewery headquarters a few years ago, he said. The city had bought up the homes on the land beside the brewery, so foundation and Humanim representatives met with community leaders to find out what they'd like to see done with the open space.

"People didn't want just another tomato garden," said Cindy Plavier-Truitt, Humanim's chief development officer. With a large, well-established community garden nearby on North Duncan Street, they wanted this to be a green place where they could sit and talk and hold community events.

The city put about $800,000 into demolishing the rowhouses, repaving the sidewalks and other improvements, and Parks & People obtained a $200,000 grant from the state for the park itself. Even the ground beneath the homes has been rehabilitated, with a fresh layer of topsoil brought in to help sustain the two dozen trees and other vegetation to be planted there.

Among the infrastructure upgrades is a buried electrical cable, to be used if the partners can realize their long-range vision of making it a "tech park," wired and equipped with flat screens where residents could come to get information and learn about events going on in the neighborhood. The feasibility of that has yet to be determined, but in the meantime, benches made from recycled paper have been donated for use in the park by Boise Inc., a Utah-based paper and packaging company. The Alliance for Community Trees, based in College Park, also is pitching in.

One of the park's novel features is its use of rain-absorbing "porous" pavement and pavers for the walking paths, plaza and parking spots. Hager said they're being used in the park to demonstrate their potential for reducing stormwater pollution that fouls the city's streams and harbor. Rainfall should soak into the ground through these porous surfaces, rather than running off into the street, washing trash, pet waste, fertilizer and other debris down storm drains that lead to the harbor.

Replacing standard asphalt or concrete with porous pavement or pavers is one of the ways the city, with so much ground hard-scaped, can reduce its stormwater pollution. But Hager said the city has been hesitant to embrace these materials because they feared they couldn't afford to maintain them. Porous pavement needs to be vacuumed periodically to keep the openings in its surface from becoming clogged with dirt. However, Humanim has agreed to maintain the park and its porous pavement.

Community members hope similar things can be done with other vacant lots in the area. Williams said having a green space where residents can gather ought to help deter crime in the neighborhood by demonstrating to potential trouble-makers that it's a tight-knit area where people care about their community and each other. The vegetation and the birds and wildlife they attract also will be welcomed, she said, by elderly residents of the church's senior housing center across the street.

"I see improvement, not only for the neighborhood, but for the city as well," said Eddie Harley, 78, a former resident of the demolished homes, who now lives across Federal Street from the park.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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