Advocates push for 35-mile trail loop in Baltimore

In 1904, the renowned landscape architects of the Olmsted family — who helped design New York's Central Park — drew up plans to connect Baltimore's signature parks and help city residents access thousands of acres of nature.

A century later, those plans might finally become reality.

Advocates are pushing for the creation of a 35-mile trail loop that would run through more than 50 Baltimore neighborhoods. The proposed loop would connect the city's Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls and Herring Run trails.

"The city has a really unique network of parks and open space," said Jim Brown, trail development manager at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which is leading the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition effort. The coalition represents more than 40 organizations.

"The Olmsted brothers imagined a multi-modal connection between these parks. The reality is that never really happened. The roadways got built and automobiles took over."

It could cost around $25 million to design and build the 10 miles of small connecting trails needed to link the city's existing trail network, Brown said.

Four new legs are needed to complete the project. The plan is to build one trail through West Baltimore connecting Leakin Park to Druid Hill Park, just north of Coppin State; another connecting Wyman Park to Lake Montebello in North Baltimore; a third from Middle Branch Park in Cherry Hill through Port Covington to the Inner Harbor; and a fourth from Canton Waterfront Park in Southeast Baltimore to Herring Run Park in the northeast. Some property would have to be acquired to build the southeast leg.

Given Baltimore's fiscal needs — including perennial budget shortfalls in the school system and soaring overtime in the Police Department — the coalition is pressing businesses and grant-making organizations for funding.

Some residents worry how a connected system would change city neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Brown said, the idea is gaining political support. Work on some of the connecting trails is already underway.

Mayor Catherine Pugh, an avid runner who helped launch the Baltimore Running Festival, said she likes the idea — and wants to hear more.

"I love what I see in Druid Hill Park in the morning," she said of Baltimoreans using the park to exercise. "I love the connection piece."

Other cities are known for their signature trails, such as the Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia, the Mount Vernon Trail in Washington and the Hudson River Greenway in New York.

As Baltimore businesses compete with those cities and others to attract talent, many residents want walking, running and biking options where they are protected from traffic, Brown said.

"It would break down barriers," Brown said.

City Councilman Brandon Scott said, for that reason, "it would be a great thing to have the trails connected."

"We have to invest in our parks and healthier life styles," Scott said. "We just had an extension of the Herring Run trail and I see young people out enjoying the trails. Those are the kind of things we can use to unify neighborhoods."

But there are some concerns. In addition to the millions of dollars needed, some are worried an impressive trail system in Baltimore would attract wealthier residents, causing gentrification. Others have objected to paving over grass and trees to make trails.

Ellis Brown, director of the Morgan Community Mile at Morgan State University, is helping advise the coalition building the trail network. He said Morgan would benefit from being better linked to more neighborhoods.

"The idea of being able to get to work back and forth using a bicycle rather than a car is extraordinarily wonderful," he said. But, he added, "let's make sure these projects benefit the existing population as well as bring in new folks."

The coalition is already designing some of the connecting legs.

A community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. April 25 at the 29th Street Community Center to discuss how best to connect the Jones Falls Trail and the Herring Run trail in the northern part of the city.

The coalition is considering running a trail along East 33rd Street to connect Charles Village and other neighborhoods to Lake Montebello.

One option is to run a path through the middle of the grassy, tree-lined medians in a boulevard designed by the Olmsted brothers. Another is to build a protected bike and walking lane by eliminating a lane for automobile traffic.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the plan has led to polite — but intense — debate in in her district between the "bike-lovers and the tree-huggers."

"The issue is creating a trail on green space, which has historic value and has trees that need to be protected," she said. "People are very emotionally attached to two different sides of the argument. I'm very concerned about doing anything that would disturb green space."

Mark Washington, director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp., is opposed to running a trail through the existing grassy Olmsted-planned medians. He said they are a "source of pride for our community" and are used for many activities, including an annual flea market.

"We can't agree with anything that calls for disturbing a piece of historic landscape," he said. "There is more than enough space to accommodate a dedicated bike lane and reduce the lanes of traffic. We all agree there needs to be better connectivity and better biking solutions."

Meanwhile, Sagamore Development — which is building a $5.5 billion project in Port Covington — has broken ground on a southern leg of the trail loop. Port Covington's bike path, which will ultimately stretch from West Covington Park along Cromwell Street to East McComas Street, is being built using a material that will absorb sunlight and emit a glow at night.

More than 200,000 Baltimore residents — nearly one-third of the city's population — do not have access to a car.

Advocates say more than 1,100 Baltimoreans would use the trail system daily if the connections are built. They also argue that increased walking and biking would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Liz Cornish, director of the bike-advocacy group Bikemore, is one of the driving forces behind the plan. She said the 35-mile trail loop brings together some existing city plans into one comprehensive vision — and would help make Baltimore a city that is nationally known for its trail system.

"This is a huge opportunity for us to realize the Olmsted vision and connect every neighborhood to Baltimore's greatest assets," she said.

And trail advocates say a Baltimore system could serve as a lead for other counties to follow. There's talk of connecting the Gwynns Falls Trail to the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail in the south and the Jones Falls Trail with the Northern Central Railroad Trail in the north.

"We're focusing a lot of energy within the city," Jim Brown said. "If it can be done in the city, it can be done in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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