Take a tour around Baltimore’s Middle Branch and, from most vantage points, it’s hard to see the possibility.
The South Baltimore waterway has 11 miles of shoreline, but river views are largely obscured. Access, too, is severely limited. Busy roadways, most without sidewalks and safe crossings, starkly divide the waterway from the closest city residents. Debris piles mark the water’s edge as trucks roar past on highways.
The ethos surrounding the Middle Branch is not new. For generations, land surrounding the waterway has been viewed as some of Baltimore’s least desirable — a historical dumping ground for trash, industrial waste, the city’s dead and, even worse, its living.
In the eyes of the Reimagine Middle Branch team, however, the long-neglected shoreline offers enormous potential. This year the public got its first look at a preliminary vision offering water-based recreation, renewed wetlands, waterfront festival space — and a new transportation network to connect residents to the shoreline.
Now planners want feedback from residents who have for decades been largely voiceless in the planning process.
“We’re coming back to you again to see if we’re getting it right,” Ethan Cohen told community members viewing the plan virtually earlier this year. Cohen, who works for Mayor Brandon Scott’s office, is among a network of organizers engaged in the project.
A history of negligence and racism
The history of the area surrounding the Middle Branch and its population is one of environmental negligence, shortsighted planning and racism. Geographically isolated and dominated by industry, the area, which wraps around an inlet joining Gwynns Falls and the Patapsco River, was slow to be populated. Instead, it was a favored disposal site — construction debris was dumped in an unlined landfill on Reedbird Island, as was ash from the nearby Reedbird Incinerator, according to Hidden Middle Branch, a study by Maura Roth-Gormley.
From 1872 to 1948, Baltimore buried its dead along the Middle Branch — specifically the poor, unclaimed and unidentified. A potter’s field in Cherry Hill, now the site of the fields at Carter G. Woodson School, was the final resting place for bodies, four abreast in trenches. The gravesite was a frequent target of vandals, a 1908 Sun story noted.
The gravesites’ poor reputation and the abundance of pollution in the area were cited by the NAACP and the Urban League as they challenged a public housing development for African Americans planned for Cherry Hill in the 1940s, the study notes. Desperately in need of war-era housing but dedicated to racial segregation, city officials approved a Black-only development for the area after white residents repeatedly protested potential sites elsewhere in the city, according to research from the ACLU of Maryland and Sun archives.
“It’s not an accident that our communities are cut off from the water,” said Brad Rogers, executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, which receives a share of casino revenue, invests it in surrounding neighborhoods and is a partner in Reimagine Middle Branch.
“We have spent generations cutting off communities, particularly African American communities, from their water,” Rogers said. “We’ve done that by building highways, siting incinerators and dumps. The work of this is to undo the history of environmental injustice.”
State, local and federal officials have made some efforts to undo damage inflicted to the Middle Branch and its residents. Reedbird Incinerator was demolished in the 1970s and the island dump remediated. A reedy marsh has again grown in the area, although trash remains buried underneath.
A Superfund site in nearby Westport was remediated. Public housing units in Cherry Hill and Westport were shuttered with hopes of reducing overcrowding.
But major obstacles remain. Transportation corridors around the Middle Branch are wide, fast moving and difficult to navigate for pedestrians. Existing amenities like Middle Branch Park are not connected with residential areas. Points to access the water remain limited and uninviting.
Reimagine Middle Branch’s preliminary plan, created by consulting team James Corner Field Operations, revolves around an overhaul of the transportation system around the Middle Branch. The plan calls for transforming the twin Hanover and Potee street bridges over the Patapsco with wider sidewalks, trail space and fishing overlooks.
On land, Hanover Street, East Patapsco Avenue and Pennington Avenue would also become multimodal streets, providing dedicated spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. Main thoroughfares, including Waterview Avenue, would get new sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes.
Green gateway to South Baltimore
The Hanover Street Bridge would see its lanes reduced to make it safer for bikes and pedestrians. Traffic at the foot of the bridge would be rerouted to expand Middle Branch Park and create a “green gateway” to South Baltimore.
An extensive trail network would link neighborhoods to waterfront amenities. A new African American Heritage Trail would connect areas like the former potter’s field and the former Black Sox stadium in Westport — one of three spots Negro League Baseball was played along the Middle Branch.
Shoreline amenities are also slated for improvements. Middle Branch Park would be expanded and improved. Wetlands would be added to ease flooding concerns, along with spaces for festivals and smaller gatherings. A hilltop playground would have slides built into the park’s hilly landscape. The park’s lawn would be regraded to offer better sightlines of downtown Baltimore.
The boathouse west of the park would offer more boat storage, and designers envision a marketplace there with local food vendors. A sandy beach is planned next to the boathouse for boat and canoe access.
Reopening Reedbird Island
Marshlands would be fortified along much of the 11-mile shoreline, including improvements near Brooklyn and Curtis Bay to stave off flooding. Reedbird Island would be opened to the public for the first time.
Restored wetlands would also extend north to Ridgely’s Cove, where the Gwynns Falls meets the Middle Branch. Planners hope to build a pedestrian bridge linking Black Sox Park and Swann Park. Ideally, officials hope to connect to a historic swing bridge in the area, creating a destination point for visitors.
Swann Park, currently nestled beneath the suspended junction of interstates 95 and 395, would be redeveloped with a beach and kayak rentals. A boardwalk would stretch north toward Pigtown and Sharp-Leadenhall.
The plan is admittedly lofty — and long term. Reimagine Middle Branch officials say the implementation is a 20-year project.
But some pieces are underway. The new Middle Branch Fitness & Wellness Center is due to open this summer. The design process has begun to upgrade and build trails connecting the center to surrounding neighborhoods. A wetland project at the mouth of the Patapsco River is also in the design stages.
Funding sources for the broader plan are being worked out, but will likely involve public and private financing. A cost estimator is working on the project, said Megan Born, a senior associate with James Corner Field Operations. A final plan is due to be announced June 4 at a public event in South Baltimore.
Until then, planners will continue to gather input. The preliminary design was the product of numerous community surveys and interviews with area residents.
During a February community meeting, reaction was optimistic. Richard Partlow, a member of the Cherry Hill Community Development Corporation board and who grew up in Cherry Hill, called it “super exciting.”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that folks in that community will be able to use that water for recreational activities,” he said, recalling a time he was able to swim in the Middle Branch.
Trail network would connect Middle Branch communities
Partlow said he was excited to see the proposed trail system connecting neighborhoods.
“Maybe I’ll get a bicycle one day and be able to ride through those communities and see a lot of those parks that I actually didn’t know had names,” he said.
Malika Brown said she was taken by the “newness” of the plan and seeing “the actual white sand on our side of the border.”
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Brown said she hopes to see officials follow up on the design with programming.
“What is missing is programs in the communities,” she said. “So children can know how to canoe, how to row, know what an oar is.”
Residents have been most excited about improved connectivity and environmental restoration, Born said, but they’ve also been skeptical. Many have questioned whether the plans will come to fruition, she said. Others have been concerned about gentrification and displacement. Those are challenges planners are confronting, she said.
“There’s a very understandable and real threat that communities in Baltimore see,” she said. “[People ask] ‘Is it meant for us?’ It’s our job to ensure it is for them.”
Planners are hoping some of the projects currently underway will help residents feel like the plans are not a fantasy.
“It’s really important that we break the assumption that positive change in Baltimore can only happen for large development projects,” Rogers said.