Inner Harbor's Rash Field, once home to an ice skating rink and now a playground for barefoot beach volleyball players and soaring trapeze students, might soon be transformed again - with a parking garage beneath it.
The preliminary plan, which might endanger the two attractions, is to be presented to Mayor Martin O'Malley and community and business leaders this month. It would involve elevating the field enough to build a one- or two-level parking structure underneath, holding 400 to 500 cars.
The city first proposed a garage on the site more than a decade ago, but a flurry of construction on the south side of the harbor has triggered renewed interest in the project. Ritz-Carlton is building a hotel and residences nearby, increasing demand for parking.
Rash Field would be restored atop the garage when construction is complete. City officials said that views of the harbor would not be obstructed.
"People would just drive by this and see a park and a skyline," said Andrew Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. But neither Frank nor an O'Malley spokesman would say whether the trapeze school or the volleyball beach would return.
"This is a great opportunity for us to rethink how a prominent place in the city should be used," Frank said. "This should be a park for the entire city." His organization is considering creating a community-designed playground or a carousel to make the harbor more child-friendly.
That has hundreds of young professionals who kick off their shoes and spike volleyballs on summer afternoons upset. About 500 players have signed a petition asking the city to preserve the six courts and 1,000 tons of sand, said Baltimore Beach founder Todd G. Webster.
"I think it would really stink," said Jason McDonald, a financial analyst from Canton. "I don't know anywhere else in the city where you could play beach volleyball."
As a salty breeze blew off the harbor and a stereo blasted "Brown-Eyed Girl" yesterday evening, players said the volleyball league is a healthy alternative to the bar scene. "It's a young professional city, and this is a great way for people to get together, get exercise and have fun," said law student Briena Strippoli, who lives in Federal Hill.
Another harbor attraction, the Trapeze School New York of Baltimore, might leave the city if the parking plan is approved, said president Brian McVicker.
"Even this year, we were looking at whether it would be practical to open up," McVicker said. He complained that the city has twice forced him to move his large, unwieldy equipment and fences, despite having invited the trapeze school to Rash Field in 2004.
McVicker, who charges children and adults $40 for two hours of swooping and swinging high above the harbor, said he has invested $30,000 in the two city-mandated moves, for which he has barely been compensated. The city has slashed his monthly rent from $2,000 to $1,000 to make amends for the month the trapeze school lost to the Volvo Ocean Race, McVicker said.
"If they're going to continually upgrade my space, that would be great for me," he said. However, if the trapeze school is moved to a less prominent location after construction on a garage is complete, McVicker said that he would accede to his investors' demands and move the operation out of Baltimore.
Baltimore officials said the current plan for a garage "just shows a green space" on top, said Frank, the BDC vice president. His agency is studying whether the garage would turn a profit for the city. These discussions include whether the trapeze school and volleyball courts will remain.
Both attractions contribute to the community, said Connie A. Brown, director of the city's Department of Recreations and Parks. "They have each allowed us to bring many children from our city recreation centers," Brown said.
More than 200 children from the parks program have taken lessons at the trapeze school, McVicker said. Busing and liability difficulties have limited the number of students attending free volleyball clinics, Webster said.
He estimated that 20 children attended the clinics last summer. No clinics have been offered this year.
Baltimore Beach made an agreement with the city that it would offer the clinics in exchange for reduced permit fees, said Jennifer Morgan, director of partnerships for city parks. Last year, the volleyball league paid between $7,000 and $9,000 for permits, about half of what it would have ordinarily cost, Morgan said.
The posts, nets and imported sand at the courts are a joint venture between the city and the volleyball leagues, Webster said. Players pay $60 in fees per season for a league membership and access to the courts. On Fridays, the courts are open to outsiders who pay $3 for what Webster calls "social volley."
Rash Field - formally Joseph H. Rash Memorial Park - was dedicated in 1976 and cost $2.3 million "to be the site of many citywide public events and athletic contests," according to the city's Internet site. Originally, the field was to be used for old Southern High School athletic events and city festivals. A winter ice rink was maintained by the city on the field for a decade but was removed in 2003.
Now, on summer afternoons when the volleyball courts are in use, the public only has free access to the wooden bleachers that ring the field and a small, grassy area. Two other parks, West Harbor Park and Federal Hill Park, are nearby.