Planting seeds for plaza park; Advocates use space at City Hall to show how to revitalize areas


At noon yesterday, Robert Marshall, a 52-year-old chess regular at City Hall plaza, gazed at the young trees and flowers swaying in the breeze, the sandbox and gazebo full of children and the jazz ensemble from Winston Middle School attracting a crowd.

"I'm shocked and impressed to see people congregate," Marshall said as he waited to play a match. "It's a shame it's not like this all the time."

The temporary garden park, created in the War Memorial plaza, was a fleeting vision designed for a parks and recreation rally led by Mayor Martin O'Malley. The plaza's one-day transformation was conceived by organizers of a national Great Urban Parks conference held here this week to demonstrate how Baltimore can enliven its public space.

On hand to witness the finale of the four-day conference were city employees, parks activists and a handful of curious onlookers, including the vagrants who frequent the plaza.

Calling the rectangular plaza between City Hall and the War Memorial building "a concrete Death Valley," O'Malley reacted to the newly vibrant area the way conference organizers hoped he would -- with boyish enthusiasm.

"This is a wonderful precursor," he told listeners sitting on new park benches and standing on fresh sod, surrounded by mulch piles and chestnut and cherry trees that decked the plaza.

He told senior advisers to make the garden look permanent.

Declaring that recreation and parks should not be "the first agency to go on the budget cutting block," O'Malley announced an additional $500,000 for the department's budget, bringing it to more than $20 million, after years of cuts.

"This is what you can do in a dead space," said Jennifer Morgan, special projects coordinator for the Washington Monument and designer of the ephemeral garden.

Morgan, 39, pointed to a flowering white dogwood tree she had watered at midnight and the mulch piles around the spruce and hawthorn trees. "The only thing that's not real is the daffodils," she said.

The garden was a visual statement of the ideas expressed at the urban parks conference.

A gathering of national experts concluded that Baltimore has a rich inheritance of beautiful parkland, but that the city is behind the curve in cultivating "the heart and soul" -- lively and green public gathering places.

While Boston has the Common and New York has Central Park, Baltimore does not have an inviting "signature park" that everyone frequents. Baltimore County's capital improvement budget for parks and recreation is $50 million, while the city's is $6 million.

Janet Marie Smith, an architect and the designer of Camden Yards, told the gathering how her three young children were entranced by a visit to Fort McHenry. Interviewed while leaving the plaza, Smith said, "All you have to do is put some money in [to parks]. It is so easy to remedy, not like all the other problems."

City fire communications worker Kim Donahue heard the music and went outside to sit in the sun with a colleague.

"We normally don't come out here," she said.

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