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Planners start forging path for Gwynns Falls trail


Count on this: No hiking trail is going to hug the Gwynns Fall behind Jim and Eda Bass' place, the tavern with the sign boasting "Best Crab Cakes in Town."

The slope is too steep on their side of the stream. Instead, this six-mile trail -- this planned urban "greenway" -- will probably have to cross the stream to avoid the slope behind the tavern.

And that's why a dozen people found themselves standing in the snow yesterday, talking and pointing and nodding and considering suitable locations for a footbridge. They were among the nearly 100 community leaders, conservationists, engineers, landscapers and city planners who turned out in Southwest Baltimore for a workshop designed to take the first steps toward turning the proposed Gwynns Falls Greenway into reality.

The Greenway would follow the stream from West Baltimore's Leakin Park to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, with spurs to tourist attractions such as the B&O; Railroad Museum and the Inner Harbor. It would link the neighborhood green spaces, such as Gwynns Falls Park and Carroll Park, and provide city dwellers with access to hiking, fishing and wildlife.

"We have a chance to reclaim a stream valley that's been underutilized," said Chris Rogers, of the Trust for Public Land, a national organization that helps preserve open spaces. "It's an opportunity waiting to happen for recreation, for economic development."

That is, canoe launches and bicycle shops might open near the trail, and the Basses might sell more crab cakes. As for tasting local culture, hikers might visit the Mount Clare Mansion or watch the locals pan for jewelry washed down the stream and deposited in the bend near the Bass tavern.

The Greenway idea has the backing of community and philanthropic groups and government at all levels. The state has approved about $400,000 in federal highway money intended for "alternative" transportation projects. City employees from the planning and parks departments are working on the Greenway. The private Trust for Public Lands is helping plan the project and acquire the land.

Mr. Rogers said the Greenway -- expected to cost $3 million to $4 million for construction, land and creation of a maintenance fund -- will probably not be complete for at least two years, but sections of it may open earlier.

Building such "linear parks" is an idea that is catching on across the country. Examples can be found in Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington.

And Mr. Rogers said groups are exploring the Jones Falls valley for a similar path. The Gwynns Falls Greenway could connect on both ends with a trail through the Patapsco Valley in Baltimore County to form a 35-mile circuit.

With grand ideas comes the need to work out details. That explains yesterday's gathering of people from 20 community groups, businesses and cultural institutions to share their ideas for design and management. They fanned out in five groups to tramp through the snow and explore possible trail locations and identify potential problems.

John Ott, railroad museum director, wondered whether hikers and bikers will be safely compatible with the trains that run on the tracks near the museum. Minutes later, everyone stepped away from the tracks as a 40-year-old Western Maryland Fast Freight F7A diesel engine chugged past on a tourist excursion.

There are bound to be disagreements. Morgan Grove, who with Yale University's Urban Resource Initiative has done everything from teach urban forestry to provide job training for Baltimore's inner-city youth, said environmental restoration is a priority.

But he said industrial sights should be incorporated into the greenway because they are a part of the city's heritage.

"I think some people want to make it all a nature trail," he said. "You have to deal with the reality, the history."

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