Renewal of city parks depends on O'Malley; Leadership: Experience shows best efforts are meaningless without mayor's personal commitment.


MANY leading experts on urban parks are in Baltimore for a nationwide conference today. They have plenty to see: 11 citywide parks; 4 golf courses; 41 community parks; 83 public squares and landscaped median strips; 138 neighborhood play grounds; 18 play fields; 64 regularly maintained open space areas, and 21 traffic islands. Total: 7,000 acres.

This is Baltimoreans' common heritage. Unfortunately, the legacy is badly neglected. Whether as political leaders or individuals, we have not been good stewards.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration has promised to do better. The mayor has pledged to hire a new parks and recreation director, create a strong parks board to define budgeting priorities, and open recreation centers Tuesday through Saturday.

That's a good start. But no quick turnaround is possible unless Mr. O'Malley himself leads an effort to upgrade the recreation and parks department.

The experience of Chicago underscores that reality. Its parks are among the nation's most impressive turnaround stories because Mayor Richard M. Daley adopted beautification as his personal cause. He improved lighting and security, planted trees and flowers, weeded out the deadwood among patronage workers. He also became one of the parks' most enthusiastic users, bicycling up to 100 miles on his most productive days.

The decline of Baltimore's parks in the 1990s tells a contrasting story.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had the right instincts. He commissioned a number of studies about the parks system. But they were not implemented. Worse yet, in the absence of his leadership the day-to-day operation limped along listlessly.

By 1997, the system had gotten so bad that the mayor effectively dismantled it. Maintenance functions were transferred to the public works department, many recreation centers to the police department. The rump parks and recreation agency was left primarily to run senior citizens' programs.

The O'Malley administration is reorganizing again. Some parks planning and engineering functions have been returned to the Department of Recreation and Parks. The police department is relinquishing control of many of the 26 recreation centers it has operated. A decision on the new director is expected next month.

Twenty applicants are seeking the director's job, including Thomas Overton, who has overseen the agency for the past three years. Many City Council members, responding to pressure from senior citizens, say they are against replacing the veteran administrator.

Baltimore has many of the physical essentials for a top-notch park system:

Much of the Olmsted brothers' amazingly far-sighted 1904 land-use plan is intact. Recent initiatives -- from the Gwynns Falls greenway trail to a plan for a similar path in the Jones Falls valley -- would enhance the Olmsteds' vision.

The transformation of the Inner Harbor has produced a new appreciation for the possibilities of the Patapsco River shoreline. Residential and commercial real estate is booming. A walkway from Canton to South Baltimore has introduced new recreational uses.

Unfortunately, this potential is being poorly exploited. The parks and recreation department's near-decimation has demoralized its remaining staff and played havoc with its programs.

Worse, there is little recognition of the key role a well-functioning parks and recreation system plays in neighborhood revitalization.

In the counties surrounding Baltimore, homebuyers pay a premium for proximity to golf courses. Yet the neighborhoods around city golf courses in Forest Park, Clifton Park and Carroll Park are struggling with decay and abandonment.

The plight of many public squares is no better. While Mount Vernon Place, the most prestigious, is finally reacquiring its former splendor and prominence, several others -- Lafayette Square, in particular -- are teetering on the edge, surrounded by shockingly rapid deterioration.

Well-maintained parks could be an important tool in revitalizing neighborhoods. But that requires creativity and coordination.

The Great Urban Parks conference will devote its sessions tomorrow to examining strategies that have enabled other cities to revive their parks. There will be workshops on programming, developing civic leadership, finding partners and securing long-term funds.

When Baltimore started its parks system 141 years ago, the City Council devised an ingenious mechanism to fund land acquisition and operating costs: It required streetcar franchises to hand over one-fifth of their gross receipts. This is the way the city subsidized its parks and recreation operations until the 1940s.

Could similar innovative funding sources be created today? You bet. Indeed, new revenue sources, partnerships and sponsorships are critical, if parks and rec operations are to be successfully rebuilt.

The city parks and the taxpayer-funded recreation functions must be rethought. They have failed in the marketplace. Just look at the thousands who prefer to work out in health clubs instead of jogging in the parks. Or the additional thousands who think parks are too passive and take their toddlers to indoor amusement parks.

The city's parks and recreation operation needs a shakeup similar to that of recent years at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Its turnaround followed the hiring of a director who brought in fresh leadership and bold ideas.

The parks and rec department has to market its amenities better. It has to offer more programs that appeal to Baltimoreans of all ages.

Money buys many things. But dollars alone cannot produce leadership and vision. Those will have to come from Mayor O'Malley -- and the thousands of Baltimoreans who are ready to help restore the city's parks and rec operation.

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