Neighbors around Patterson Park are making an uproar over a plan that could add a paved road and nearly 100 parking spaces inside the park — changes city health and parks officials call "improvements" that may be needed to accommodate a new senior center and renovated recreation center.
Hundreds signed a petition Tuesday and "liked" a Facebook page urging the city to reject or revise the proposal, arguing that it goes against past pledges to limit vehicle traffic in the park and promote green space. Opponents planned community meetings and said they would knock on doors to collect more petition signatures.
City officials said they are studying proposed changes shown on a map that has circulated on neighborhood email lists, and said nothing is final.
The conflict stems from the tight city budget. The recreation center renovations are part of a $19 million plan to build or improve four centers while closing four others. The plan to use a building in the park for a senior center is a response to dwindling federal funds.
For neighbors, the parking proposal came as a shock after years of what they said were assurances of a limit on the number of cars in the park.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office and health and parks officials said they would seek community feedback before moving forward with the plans.
"The people who live around Patterson Park helped revive it, so of course we're going to include them in the process," said Ian Brennan, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. "We're going to get a sense of what anybody wants."
A map prepared for city officials by Hord Coplan Macht, an architecture firm, shows a widened entrance to the park at Baltimore Street and North Luzerne Avenue leading to a new loop road through the northwest section of the park. The loop road would lead to the park's Casino building, now used as an adult day care center, and on to the Virginia S. Baker Recreation Center. Along the way it would add 96 parking spaces. Currently, there are small parking areas at the two buildings with room for about a dozen cars.
City Councilman Jim Kraft, whose district includes the park and who lives steps away from it, said he first heard of the plans Sept. 12 in a meeting with city Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot and acting Parks Director Bill Vondrasek. He said he has acted quickly to mobilize the community against the plans.
In an interview, Kraft said he was blindsided by the proposal after years of working with park officials to add more park rangers and to enforce parking restrictions and other rules.
"We've been pushing rec and parks to do things they said they would do," Kraft said. "Not only have you not done what you've said you were going to do; you're going to do something that flies directly in the face of what you said you were going to do."
City health and parks officials said they are willing to work with Kraft and the community.
The health department plans to close the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown and move its services to the park's 119-year-old Casino building, officials said, though no timeline has been set for that transition. Given that adults currently cared for in the building are mostly transported by bus, adding more senior-citizen services there could require more parking. The building is in the park's interior, about 200 yards from Baltimore Street.
The health department "is committed to partnering with the Department of Recreation and Parks to work with the affected communities to ensure seamless transition of services to seniors," officials said in a statement.
The Baker Recreation Center, meanwhile, is slated for a $3 million renovation to be completed by summer 2014, said parks department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers. As part of a plan to cut the city's recreation and parks budget, four West Baltimore recreation centers were closed this year, with $19 million being put toward building three new centers and renovating the Baker center.
Parks officials began exploring parking options around the Baker center as a result, Chambers said. But she emphasized that no money has been budgeted to build any parking project in Patterson Park.
"You might have a lot more usage, so it's definitely something to look at," Chambers said. "We don't want to come in haphazardly in any type of way."
Kraft and park advocates and neighbors were angered that they weren't brought into the process sooner. Many criticized any plan to reduce the amount of green space in the park, which they called a valuable amenity that has helped improve the neighborhood in recent decades.
"The parking plan was prepared by one of Baltimore's largest architecture firms, which means they spent considerable money on this," said Joe Di Mattina, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association. "Never in the planning process have they asked the community what they want."
Some criticized the proposal as going against Rawlings-Blake's inaugural pledge to bring 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade. When young parents are choosing between city life or a big lawn in the suburbs, parks can make a big difference, said Judy Chung O'Brien, board president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for family city living.
Rebecca Coleman, a resident of South Ellwood Street along Patterson Park's eastern edge, said that was true of her and her husband, who now have a 10-month old son.
"When we were trying to decide whether to move to my place or his place, we chose his place because we loved the park," Coleman said. "I would hate to see the park be destroyed by this plan."
Presidents of neighborhood associations across Southeast Baltimore plan to meet Wednesday at 7 p.m. to coordinate their opposition to the proposal. Community leaders also plan to meet Thursday night in the park to launch a door-to-door signature drive. A petition posted online at 9 a.m. Tuesday had garnered about 1,100 signatures by 5 p.m. A Facebook page titled "Help Stop The Paving Of Our Beautiful Park" had about 600 "likes" as of Tuesday evening.
Kraft said he plans to organize formal meetings with city health and parks officials early next month.
"The park has come so far," said Jennifer Robinson, board president of the Friends of Patterson Park, a nonprofit park advocacy group. "To see this happening is really discouraging."