Baltimore's new waterfront

Baltimore's reservoirs soon will no longer be needed to store the city's supply of drinking water. To meet a 2006 federal water safety rule to protect drinking water from contaminants, the city plans to install underground tanks to replace its reservoirs at Druid Hill Park, Guilford and Lake Ashburton. The city plans to fill in the Guilford reservoir, but the Druid Hill reservoir in particular could become an attractive new recreation area for swimming, boating and other waterfront activities that bring new life to the surrounding communities. If that is to happen, however, city officials need to start thinking now about how to manage the transition in a way that both protects this scenic natural resource and ensures the amenities it offers are sustainable.

Faced with tight budgets and more pressing priorities, such as schools and public safety, the city cannot afford to take on this project alone. Ideally, such a transition would be carried out by one or more public-private partnerships dedicated to putting the soon-to-be-unused body of water to new use. Such quasi-public entities would have to take on the responsibility for creating and maintaining the new public spaces and for operating the businesses and other attractions that allow the lake to become self-supporting. The partnerships would also have to coordinate closely with local residents and neighborhood groups to preserve the character of the surrounding communities.

Transforming Druid Lake into a more accessible waterfront destination would seem an idea rich in possibilities. Anyone who has visited the famous Boathouse Restaurant in New York's Central Park, for example, can imagine how a similar venture at the reservoir in Druid Hill Park might enhance the quality of life in that community. The restaurant, which attracts a lively clientele of visitors from around the region, is situated on the banks of a large pond inside the park and features floor-to-ceiling windows that offer stunning views of the water. Next door to the restaurant, diners can rent a rowboat after their meal and glide across the pond, enjoying the scenery and the many forms of fish and fowl that inhabit it.

Druid Lake has the most potential of the three reservoirs, but the city needs help to maintain all three, even the hilly patch of open space officials envision in Guilford. Construction of the underground tanks won't be completed for several more years, and that gives the city plenty of time to figure out how to successfully manage the transition. As with any waterfront activity, there are always safety issues to contend with — lifeguards for swimmers and boaters, for example — as well as routine maintenance, trash removal and provision for public restrooms and other amenities. Whatever entities eventually emerge to oversee the changeover will also have to recruit business owners and private donors who can generate enough cash to do what needs to be done to keep the operation afloat. The city has to make it clear that if the partnerships run into trouble, they can't look to taxpayers to bail them out.

That is perhaps why some neighborhood residents have expressed skepticism about what will happen when the reservoirs are decommissioned. They fear the sites won't be properly maintained and that if they fall into disrepair, they could become a source of blight that threatens neighborhood property values. But the best way to ensure that does not happen is to start planning now, while there's still plenty of time, for the kind of public-private partnership that can assemble the resources needed to guard against such threats. The impending change in water storage methods is a challenge facing all Baltimore's reservoir communities, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity to revitalize and enhance some of the city's most beautiful scenic environments — if the process is handled in the right way.

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