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Baltimore County’s first park in six years will convert Sparrows Point brownfield into 15-acre green space

Baltimore County may soon build its first new public park in more than six years on a swath of land within Tradepoint Atlantic, an industrial site once owned — and polluted — by the former Bethlehem Steel mill.

For the southeastern towns of Edgemere and Sparrows Point, the 15-acre park, planned along Jones Creek, would be the first built by the county after years of community calls for athletic space and a community center went largely unheard.

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Sparrows Point Park is planned for the edge of a sprawling 3,100-acre campus where Bethlehem Steel’s closure in 2012 left behind an estimated $68.7 million worth of pollution cleanup efforts for Tradepoint Atlantic, according to Tradepoint officials.

Bounded to the east by Jones Creek and to the west by the Route 151 interchange, the park would be buffered to the west by Tradepoint Atlantic’s privately owned short-line railroad, where trains ferry scrap metal, lumber and other bulk commodities, Tradepoint officials said.

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There are no signs of historic industrial use on the prospective parkland itself, according to consultant reports on file with state regulators. Those consultants found arsenic and manganese in soil tests of the site, but experts said not at levels harmful to people. Tradepoint Atlantic is required by the state to complete a risk assessment to evaluate levels of contamination, with consideration to the intended land use, before the park becomes a reality.

Baltimore County is hoping to start construction in the fall.

Development around the North Point peninsula over the years ate up much of the land and left little room for recreation and parkland, said Republican Councilman Todd Crandell.

“There just hasn’t been an available property that would make sense for Baltimore County to go in and build a community center,” he said.

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Supported by significant county investment, the steel mill has since been replaced by a burgeoning industrial campus with port, logistics and manufacturing uses that now houses distribution centers for Amazon, FedEx, McCormick & Co. Inc. and Under Armour.

Tradepoint Atlantic is donating the land at 1900 Wharf Road for Sparrows Point Park to the county.

“The county supported us through redevelopment,” said Aaron Tomarchio, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic.

The park “is a way for us to give back,” he said.

For the county, Sparrows Point Park would fulfill one of the first pieces of legislation pushed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski — and signals the county’s commitment to investing in public parkland after green space and recreation programs languished under the late County Executive Kevin Kamenentz’s administration, local officials say.

County officials and community members are planning a nearly 16,000 square-foot solar-powered community center, outfitted with a double court gym and activity rooms.

The building is planned to be the county’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Platinum-designed building — the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating for environmentally responsible new building construction.

Outside, Sparrows Point Park would boast a full-size LED-lit synthetic turf athletic field, a 10,000-square foot playground and a fishing pier and kayak launch on Jones Creek.

Olszewski’s administration revised an infrastructure agreement between the county and Tradepoint Atlantic to include the donation of land for public recreational use. The County Council approved the revised agreement in December 2018.

In November, county voters approved a $35 million bond request for recreation and parks projects. That money will be used for establishing new parks, improving existing parks, building recreational trails and acquiring more land for recreation facilities.

The county allocated $9.7 million this fiscal year to build parks, athletic fields and recreation centers and maintain existing ones.

“We’ve had more support, more funding and really more interest from [Olszewski’s] administration than we’ve ever had before in recent years — at least 10 years,” said Roslyn Johnson, director of the Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department.

Tim Dodge, chairman of the Edgemere-Sparrows Point Recreation League, said during a community meeting the park was a necessity for the recreation league as registration ballooned by 84% between 2008 and 2019, reaching more than 2,700 athletes.

The league rotates among three local schools and the Community College of Baltimore County’s Essex campus to use fields and courts. The closest recreation center is at the North Point Government Center in Dundalk in what officials say is a rundown building that would cost millions to renovate.

Olszewski, a Democrat who grew up in Dundalk, remembers hearing the blast furnace at the Bethlehem Steel mill, “knowing what that meant in terms of jobs and opportunity and seeing firsthand what happened when that … sound went away.”

“That was a passion and a priority of mine: Helping to breathe new life into that site,” he said.

Deborah S. Barkley, who has lived less than a mile from the proposed park since the 1980s, said traffic, especially tractor trailers and delivery trucks, has mushroomed along MD-151, emitting more vehicle exhaust fumes close to the park.

Reading news of the planned park, Barkley said, “That floored me … That they would put a playground in an area where it’s industrialized like you wouldn’t believe.”

Barkley is wary after years of black dust produced by steel manufacturing, known as kish, wafting in or raining down on her home from the Bethlehem Steel plant miles away.

Nine years after the steel mill closed, she worries about air quality along the highway.

“The exhaust will choke you,” she said.

Still, she says the growing number of children in her neighborhood need a place to play other than school playgrounds and neighborhood streets.

But “if they’re gonna put a playground right next to a 24-hour [operation] … and an interstate — I don’t know that that’s so good for children to ingest that as they’re playing,” she said.

“It’s not only the traffic … are they gonna monitor the air before they put this there?”

Tradepoint Atlantic and county officials say the land being eyed for the park is clean and suitable for a park, which was formerly used as a golf course in the 1950s. Now, the mostly-vacant land is abutted by two yacht clubs to the south and a marina to the north.

The property’s various owners have been under orders to clean up pollutants on the industrial site since 1997 as part of settlements of state and federal lawsuits.

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Peter Haid, environmental director at Tradepoint Atlantic, said he’s heard from yacht club members who say “the clarity in Jones Creek has changed remarkably now.”

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“The blades of grass are starting to come back,” he added. “The ecology of the area seems to be recovering since the shuttering of the steel mill.”

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