Remaking Baltimore's Druid Lake: $140 million water project has some residents hopeful, others concerned

Keisha Brown and her father had a pile of steamed crabs spread across their picnic table under a pavilion in Druid Hill Park. Down the hill, the chocolate-colored bed of what had been the Druid Lake reservoir was visible through the trees.

“I just miss the water,” said Brown, 39.

A buzz from construction machinery rose to where they sat. Crews working for the Baltimore water department were digging into the bed of the reservoir — which has been cut in two and partially drained — preparing the site for construction of two huge, underground tanks that will bring the city in line with federal water safety rules.

The waterworks project is an unprecedented engineering undertaking, paid for by the sharply increasing bills of Baltimore’s water customers. It means years of dirt and noise and will reshape the southern end of a historic corner of the city, where generations of residents’ childhood memories are layered with memories of raising their own children.

“We tolerate it,” Brown’s 62-year-old father, Charles, said of the project. “Nothing stays the same.”

City leaders are relying on the patience of park visitors lasting over the course of three and a half more years of construction. But they say they’re confident that when the $140 million job is finished, the community will appreciate the result. Part of the old lake site will become 14 new acres of parkland on top of the buried tanks. The remaining lake, though smaller, will be accessible for recreation.

The Department of Recreation and Parks is still in the early stages of planning what the affected area might look like. But Adam Boarman, the official in charge of capital projects for the agency, said he wants to create something that will bring international renown to Baltimore.

“This is an opportunity for us to really embrace the water in a way that wasn’t available to us,” Boarman said. He has visions of kayaks on the lake, a wildlife habitat and possibly a lakeside cafe and a swimming beach.

That last option is high on Keisha Brown’s list.

“I wish they could make it swimmable,” she said.

But all that is a long way off.

The Department of Public Works doesn’t expect to turn over the area to the parks department until the spring of 2022. In the meantime, visitors to the park’s southern end will see diggers and bulldozers. Soon, a small concrete plant will be built on the old reservoir bottom to make the tanks.

As he changed into running shoes by the reservoir, Wendell Rawlings said the construction hasn’t interfered with his routine too much. Parts of the path that loops around the water are closed during the work, but he prefers to run up the steep hills at the park’s edge.

Rawlings, the 46-year-old brother of former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the plans for the park sound good, but he was disappointed with the completion date.

“That hurt my feelings, that it’s ‘22,” he said. “Because it’s a long time.”

The tanks are how the city has opted to comply with 2006 Environmental Protection Agency rules that required cities to remake their large, open reservoirs. Water departments must either cover their reservoirs or put an extra dose of chemicals into the water before pumping it to customers. Baltimore chose the first path and has embarked on a series of projects throughout the city and Baltimore County. The Druid Hill Park project, the largest, began last summer.

Mike Hallmen, the construction manager, sloshed through gritty mud that now covers the route of a path around the reservoir. Hallmen pointed out where the underground tanks — the equivalent of four stories tall — will soon be built. The tanks will protect drinking water from contamination and cut down the public works department’s chemical costs.

“It will be a completely closed system — the water from the filtration plant to your tap,” Hallmen said.

The Druid Lake project is unique. After negotiations with communities surrounding the park, the public works department opted to build the tanks in the existing reservoir, rather than nearby, to minimize disruptions for park visitors and neighbors. It allowed work to be confined to the reservoir area. And draining part of the lake, instead of excavating new holes for the tanks, reduced the time it would take.

It’s the first time such a process has been attempted in the United States, according to the public works department. The tanks themselves will be the biggest of their kind in the nation: The larger one, with a diameter of 500 feet, would more than fill War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall.

In a few weeks, crews will begin placing thousands of anchors to hold the tanks in place. Then, construction of the tanks themselves can begin. “Concrete’s going to be made, poured, formed,” Hallmen said. “Everything’s going to happen here on site.”

Work on the first tank is expected to start before the end of the year.

The unusual approach of building underground tanks, on the site of an existing reservoir, has run into some problems.

The public works department built a temporary dam across the reservoir to divide it into two sections, one that would remain filled with drinking water and the other that would be emptied to make space for the tanks.

The dam was built by simply pouring rocks into the water, running the risk of stirring up sediment and contaminating the drinking water supply. The department’s contractor, Texas firm Oscar Renda, installed giant curtains to block the sediment, but gaps in the system allowed sediment levels to rise above state limits last winter. The reservoir had to be taken offline.

Hallmen said officials had hoped to keep the reservoir in operation throughout the construction, but had plans in place in case it had to be taken offline.

“It didn’t come out of left field,” Hallmen said. “We did everything we could to keep it online during the construction, but it just wasn’t possible.”

The remaining portion of the reservoir was then drained. It was being refilled this week. Hallmen said it is expected to come back online in a month or so.

Jeffrey Raymond, a spokesman for the public works department, said the problems haven’t knocked the project off schedule or off budget. The city did award a $3 million contract for emergency repairs at another site to ensure enough water was available to customers, but Raymond said those repairs would have been done eventually even without the problems at Druid Lake.

“We did build in time for these contingencies,” Raymond said. “We do feel good about where we are.”

Councilman Leon Pinkett, whose district includes the park, follows the project closely. He said he’s concerned about the problems and questioned whether the city adopted the best approach to avoid contamination. But Pinkett said he thinks the most technically difficult part of the work is now complete.

“I don’t anticipate there being any other issues,” Pinkett said.

The 745-acre park was designed in 1860 by landscape architect Howard Daniels, at a time when America’s urban leaders were looking to Europe for ideas about how to create green spaces. At the turn of the 20th century, the Olmsted Brothers, a firm founded by sons of the designer of New York’s Central Park, proposed improvements to the southern end of the Druid Hill Park. A few of those projects were completed, but many of the Olmsteds’ contributions were obliterated in 1947 with the construction of the Druid Park Lake Drive.

Boarman, whose office is across the street from the construction site, said he feels the weight of history as he considers the next stage in its development.

“I feel a certain pressure to get it right,” he said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us as a city.”

As plans for the altered park begin to form, the city’s Department of Transportation is studying the roads around its edge.

Residents and activists have complained that the roads form barriers between the park and nearby neighborhoods. In August, a temporary protected lane for cyclists and pedestrians was set up on Druid Park Lake Drive; it could become a permanent feature.

Hallmen said the current plans for the water project require digging through the road to install pipes, shutting down some lanes of traffic. But the water department and the contractor are in the process of finalizing a plan to instead tunnel under the road.

The water department plans to turn over the open space, plus a new amphitheater, to the parks department — what Hallmen called a blank canvas — so park officials can “take it to the next level.”

Boarman said he expects to ask for $200,000 in next year’s budget to begin planning. In all, he expects the city would need to spend millions more on the lake and the area surrounding it.

“If we’re able to create some excitement about this project, hopefully the funding will follow,” Boarman said.

Pinkett said his excitement about the park’s future is tempered until funding is guaranteed for the kinds of projects the parks department has in mind.

“It’s all theoretical,” he said. “There is time, but there is not a lot of time. Those four or five years will be gone before we know it. Druid Hill Park is not just an asset for the district I represent or West Baltimore, it’s a city asset. We should be allocating resources now.”

Monique Burton, a 23-year-old nurse, said she comes to the park almost every day. She’s optimistic the reservoir project will be a success.

“I look forward to seeing how it looks at the end,” she said.

As she recalled coming to the park after school as a child, she blew bubbles for her 2-year-old son to chase through the grass.

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