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Southland Hills mini-park is close to gardener Molly McConnell's home and heart

Except for its large community sign, the Southland Hills mini-park is a tree-buffered blur for passing motorists.

"That's what we like," said Molly McConnell, whose house looks out on the east end of the long, narrow, sloped green space with a stormwater ditch that runs for a tenth of a mile between Towsontown Boulevard and Alabama Avenue, across from the Towson University parking garage.

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McConnell, 66, is the park's volunteer gardener, weeding in the garden around the sign, watering the trees, planting new flowers and shrubs, and fighting the effects of urbanization and construction, from the relocation of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. power lines to the seemingly neverending replacement of BGE gas lines on Alabama.

McConnell gets no money from the Southland Hills Community Association or from Baltimore County, which owns the mini-park and mows the grass.

"I don't want anything," she declared. "Money is control. Once they give you money, they can tell you what to do. I do what I want. I do this for fun. This is my hobby. I'm happy not to get money."

This is an important time for the longtime, 1.8-acre park, located in a community that dates to the 1920s. The county planted 54 trees May 5, including a buffer of cypress between the park and the busy boulevard, to replace trees cut down when BGE moved the university's electric lines to the park side of the street.

The county also has approved plans to add new sidewalks and fencing, and to replace the standard community sign with an elaborate stone semi-circle that would include a sign, a garden and a sitting area. Those improvements would cost an estimated $150,000, said County Councilman David Marks, whose office spent three years working with the Southland Hills Community Association on plans for the park, with the support of the county executive's office.

The park is benefiting from a BGE grant of about $10,000 and nearly $9,000 so far from the Baltimore County government, Marks and community leaders said. Another $10,000 for landscaping was promised by DMS Development, developer of the planned 101 York Road student housing complex, but Marks said the landscaping money for the park would only come if the housing project, currently in litigation with conditions set by an administrative law judge, is approved.

McConnell, whose husband, Byrl Woodford, died in 2008, is planning to pay the park even more attention. She retired May 2 after 45 years as a nurse, the past 24 at St. Joseph's Medical Center and for 17 years before that at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"I have more time now," she said.

Beautiful addition

The park is a hub of the neighborhood, a popular place for children and dog-walkers.

"That's why we bought the house," said Rob Welling, who lives at the western edge of the park with his wife, Amy, and their sons, 12 and 14.

Amy Welling said the boys grew up playing in the park and still do.

"It really is a beautiful addition to the neighborhood," she said. "It's just a real nice thing to have — and a nice buffer to Towsontown Boulevard."

But Welling also said, "The park has gone through a lot of transitions since we've been here."

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McConnell said some transitions have been frustrating. When she first took over from Southland Hills resident Susie Hunter as the gardener in the park around 2004, a maple tree had fallen on top of the community sign and into the street. The county never replaced it, so McConnell planted a sapling. A tall paulownia tree stands there now, with hostas and flowers planted around it.

The community lobbied the county for several years to replace the buffer trees removed to accomodate relocated power lines after Towson University built a new main entrance.

"We need the trees, to make (the park) safe and shield it," McConnell said.

Past curb replacements led McConnell to plant day lillies. Now, she is anxiously eyeing seven yellow pipes that a subcontractor for the gas line replacement project has staged on a patch of grass, killing the irises that McConnell planted there. She is glad ther project is scheduled to wrap up this summer, but angry about the dead flowers.

Despite such problems — and in part because of them — McConnell said the success of the park has been defined by what she calls its "disasters."

"That's how it grows, by disaster," she said. "Somebody digs up grass and I plant flowers."

A pin oak tree in the park is a memorial to a neighbor who died in a traffic accident.

"In loving memory of Glen Kevin McQuay," reads a plaque underneath the tree. McConnell brushed dirt off the plaque, which refers to the Aug. 17, 1991, death of McQuay, a 1986 graduate of Towson High School.

Improving the park is a major priority for the neighborhood, which is why Southland Hills resident Scott Rykiel, co-owner of North Baltimore-based Mahan Rykiel Associates, a landscape architecture and urban design and planning firm, made a master plan for the mini-park last year. The plan, which Rykiel said was done free of charge, calls for new signage and a contemplative garden, as well as flattening the stormwater ditch and raising its elevation to the level of Alabama Avenue.

"I think it would be very cool if it was done," Rykiel said, noting that he taught his three children to ride bikes in the park. He said the park at present isn't very user-friendly because it slopes down to the concrete ditch, or swale.

By association with the park, McConnell has gotten accolades in the neighborhood and was honored at last year's Towson Gardens Day.

"It's really (her) passion, a labor of love," said Amy Welling, a member of the community association's gardening committee. "When time allows, I'll go out and help her weed."

"She's amazing," said Hunter, 75, who now lives in the Edenwald retirement community with her husband, Bill.

"She's a bundle of energy," Hunter said. She is glad that someone has taken over with as much passion as she used to have.

For all of the park's sometimes rocky history, McConnell can't complain.

"How lucky am I to have this free space," she said, adding with a grin, "Somebody else mows the lawn."

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