Hundreds of Baltimore residents voiced strong opposition to a preliminary plan to add more parking spaces and an access road to Patterson Park during a community meeting there Monday night — at times shouting down city officials trying to explain it.
The meeting, held at the park's Virginia S. Baker Recreation Center, was the first of four planned by City Councilman James Kraft and city officials after Kraft told residents about the plan last month and thousands of them began organizing against it.
The plan, which is not final, is based in part on the city health department's desire to transfer activities at the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown to the park's 119-year-old Casino building, which housed a senior day care facility until recently. The extra parking and access road were designed to facilitate seniors' access to the building, officials said.
The plan is also intended to provide better access to the park for people who can't necessarily walk to it, and to better control vehicles that already have access the park, officials said.
More than 5,200 people have signed a petition against the plan on the website Change.org. Many at the meeting Monday held signs denouncing more parking as a loss of precious little green space left in the city.
"One of the reasons we chose our property was the park, just the ability to walk and enjoy the park," said Olga Ferguson, who with her husband, Paul, moved to the neighborhood from New York City in 2005. "We don't want to have to be cautious about cars coming by or coming in. We do enough of that anyway downtown."
Others, namely seniors who participate in activities at the Booth center, said they feel caught in the middle of the debate — even though they would need just a dozen or so parking spaces, not the 96 indicated in the plan that was made public.
"We don't want to see big paved roads and big parking lots. The seniors just want to have their place," said Charlotte Jankowiak, who grew up playing in the park. "They have a place for the dogs and a place for the children to play. Can't the seniors have a place?"
Ray Lubinski, president of the Booth center's advisory board, wrote a letter circulated at the meeting that said the park would be a great location for the new center, and that the senior center's patrons have been unfairly targeted in the debate.
"Why are we being USED by everyone to muddy the waters about FUTURE parking lots???" Lubinski wrote.
Kraft, whose district includes the park and who lives just steps away from it, recently wrote in a community letter urging attendance at the meetings that any attempt to paint the debate as one between seniors and Patterson Park community members would be "a ruse and an attempt to divide our community, pit neighbor against neighbor and portray us as parochial obstructionists."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said Kraft "poisoned the well for discussion" about the plans for the park by suggesting they were finalized when they are not.
At times Monday night, the meeting seemed like a political rally. When Kraft said one more car in the park would be one too many, the crowd cheered wildly. Acting parks director Bill Vondrase, who said officials were there to take input from the public, was booed multiple times, particularly when he raised the possibility that not everyone who would like to use the park is able to walk there.
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city's health commissioner, had fewer comments yelled at her as she spoke to the value of senior centers and the importance of giving seniors a place of their own without having to compete for resources in the renovated recreation center that is also part of the larger plan for the park.
Three more meetings are scheduled: Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Hampstead Hill Academy, 500 S. Linwood Avenue; next Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at St. Andrew's Church, 2028 E. Lombard Street; and Oct. 11 from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Breath of God Lutheran Church, 141 S. Clinton Street.