Proposed steps on east slope of Federal Hill face pushback from neighbors, American Visionary Art Museum

A proposal to add steps to the east slope of Baltimore’s Federal Hill ran into opposition from neighbors and the founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, who argued the stairs would draw loiterers and disrupt the grassy hillside, which is used for sledding and seating for the museum’s summer movie nights.

The city Department of Recreation and Parks proposed two sets of 42 concrete steps beginning at a plaza by the basketball court on Covington Street, connecting to a new concrete path on the lower hill, and leading to a new plaza on an existing pathway. The 20-foot-wide steps would be bordered by granite walls designed to match the hill’s current retaining walls, according to renderings by engineering firm RK&K.

The idea, which the Department of Recreation and Parks said came from the mayor’s office, “seeks to accommodate the continued recreational uses of the slope,” said Walter Gallas, a city historic preservation planner.

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the museum’s founder and curator, said she wanted to be a team player and appreciated the thought of aligning the top set of steps with the museum’s “Stargate” outdoor art installation.

“But at the same time, I would have never placed [the art] there had I known that concrete stairs were going to go behind it,” she said Tuesday, urging the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to reject the proposal.

The commission tabled the proposal and asked the parks department and RK&K to negotiate further.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said he was looking into exactly where the idea originated.

Hoffberger said she is concerned about after-hours loitering and crime on the steps, given a lack of enforcement of the park’s daytime hours. Her staff members pick up syringes on the museum’s property next to the hill nearly every morning, she said.

The steps might look pretty in the renderings, she said, “but we're telling you that there is another reality.”

“We know that the $80,000 allotted to take care of Federal Hill is not going to be increased,” she said. “When you put in the stairs, there's no talk of that happening.”

Robert R. Gisriel, an architect and member of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, said few people enter the park from the proposed location and suggested an alternative set of east slope stairs on a more gradual slope from the end of Warren Avenue farther south.

He said his idea would maintain sight lines from the hill and connect the park to the entrance of the Harbor promenade between the Ritz Carlton and the Pier Homes.

“We think this is a unique opportunity to tie the hill to the promenade on the east side,” he said. “You could be walking down the promenade and looking up and seeing steps to the hill or [on] the hill looking down.”

The city is currently doing emergency maintenance and adding drainage pipes on the southeastern side of the hill.

Hoffberger reminded the commission of a similar project in 2000 to repair a collapse where she said a tunnel still exists near the basketball court. She expressed concern about the strain the steps might put on the hill.

“If I get overruled, and you build this thing, I'm telling you, do ground-penetrating radar, because I think you're going to have to do a hell of a lot more of steel structure to support the weight,” she said. “All we need is another thing we sink money in, that five years later is going to be repaired.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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