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Neglected Middle Branch waterfront in South Baltimore is getting face-lift. It won't be another Inner Harbor.

Neglected Middle Branch waterfront in South Baltimore is getting face-lift. It won't be another Inner Harbor.
A light rail train passes through Westport, near the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. (Jerry Jackson / The Baltimore Sun)

The visions for the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in Baltimore are ambitious: Families playing in the sand along the shore, swimmers frolicking in a floating pool, kayakers paddling amid wetlands, couples strolling along boardwalks over marshes, ospreys swooping down to catch fish.

Three international landscape architecture firms have drawn up plans for revitalizing the neglected Middle Branch waterfront in South Baltimore as part of a city competition.

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“For far too long, this area has been neglected and abandoned and forgotten,” said Frank Lance, president and CEO of the nonprofit Parks & People Foundation, which is running the design competition.

The firms were challenged to chart a future for the 11-mile shoreline of the Middle Branch, which wraps along Port Covington, Westport, Cherry Hill, Riverside and Brooklyn, where the Patapsco River enters the harbor. The communities are a mix of industrial areas and residential neighborhoods that often feel isolated from the rest of the city.

The area will see development in the coming years: At Port Covington, work is just getting started on a massive mixed-use development conceived by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank. He also bought 43 acres across the Middle Branch in Westport after a proposed development there failed.

The goal of the Middle Branch revitalization project is to connect neighborhoods to the waterfront with parks and trails, while promoting recreational activities both on land and in the water.

The Parks & People Foundation selected three firms with experience in urban parks as finalists: James Corner Field Operations and Hargreaves Jones, both of New York City, and West 8 from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

James Corner helped designed New York’s elevated High Line park.

Representatives from the firms came in April to Baltimore to meet with residents and check out the area.

They then drew up design plans that are on display at City Garage and the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Videos are posted online at middlebranchwaterfront.com.

The designs show a mix of uses along the Middle Branch, focused heavily on new ways for people to interact with the water.

The designs are starkly different from how the Inner Harbor, just to the north, was revitalized decades ago. Where the Inner Harbor is largely commercial and surrounded by a brick promenade, the Middle Branch designs include elements such as sandy shorelines, winding footpaths, wooden boardwalks and fishing piers.

That’s what residents in the community asked for when they offered ideas for the project.

“The constant theme was they did not want another Inner Harbor,” Lance said. “They wanted a place where they could have cookouts and they could run and have water access and water sports.”

Instead of a bustling commercial space, Middle Branch would offer a “peaceful, tranquil setting,” Lance said.

West 8’s proposal envisions the Middle Branch as a “blue green heart” of the city. The company would add wetlands, turn a railroad swing bridge over the waterway into an education center, replace the Hanover Street bridge and turn the old bridge into a park.

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One of the company’s images shows a couple, arm in arm, walking on a boardwalk over marshes as the sun sets in the distance.

Hargreaves Jones calls its proposal “The Patapsco Strand” and lays out a 10-year plan that starts with projects such as closing Waterview Avenue to cars on Sundays and using goats to remove invasive plants.

By the end of the decade, the company envisions building wetlands and trails, using a barge as a floating swimming pool and adding a waterfront promenade in Westport.

One of the company’s images shows dogs frolicking in the water and a family playing in the sand on a beach in Cherry Hill, with the Hanover Street bridge in the background.

James Corner headlined its proposal, “Middle Branch Shorelines” and notes that this area is “where Baltimore meets the bay.” It described a combination of “living shorelines” with marshes and beaches and “social shorelines” that serve as gathering places for people, such as a “sun lawn” and a “picnic porch.”

The company’s design shows hiker-biker trails suspended underneath the interstate 95 and 395 highways that rise over the north end of Middle Branch and families splashing in the water at a swimming pier off Port Covington.

While swimming is generally considered a bad idea in the Middle Branch, environmental groups are working to eventually restore the waterway to a fishable and swimmable standard. A recent report showed that the city’s waterfront, including the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch, had bacteria levels that were safe for swimming 80 percent of the time last year. The report did not include bacteria readings from the wettest times of the year, when health officials advise against swimming in any natural body of water.

A public comment period on the proposed Middle Branch designs will run through June 12.

A jury will review the proposals and public feedback, and recommend a winning firm to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. From there, Young will select a firm and enter into negotiations on a contract to draw up more detailed plans.

Young, a Democrat, said he’s excited about what he’s seen so far.

“We have a community that really deserves to be able to use the amenities around the water,” Young said. “It’s a great opportunity for the entire city to be a part of that.”

The full scope of work could take a decade and cost millions of dollars, depending on which projects are selected.

Supporters of the revitalization effort believe the work could be funded with a combination of city, state, federal and private funds. Some elements of the project might be eligible for state Program Open Space grants, transportation funding or money set aside for Chesapeake Bay restoration. Impact fees from the Horseshoe Casino have been used for some of the planning and could be used for projects, too.

Private organizations and philanthropists could be enticed to give financial backing, too. Lance cited a Rebuild Philadelphia project that’s enhancing neighborhood parks, community centers and libraries with a combination of city money and $100 million from a foundation.

Lance thinks it will be easy to get funders on board for a project that could be transformative for not just South Baltimore, but the whole city.

“It gives Baltimore an opportunity to change the narrative of what the nation hears about Baltimore,” he said.

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