Every day, Monalisa Diallo runs in Druid Hill Park. The 55-year-old educator and Mondawmin resident likes the challenge of the inclines that inspired a race through the West Baltimore park: the Dreaded Druid Hills 10K. She doesn’t much care, however, for the challenge of getting there.
It’s not even a half mile between Diallo’s corner home and the closest entrance to the park, near the Rawlings Conservatory. But crossing at Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway is a daily battle. Diallo is dressed to run across the intersection, and still she has been nearly hit by cars. She’s watched other, slower-moving pedestrians struggle — some using crutches, others wheelchairs — and nervously recorded videos to document the dangers.
“It would be nice if I could take my 2-year-old grandchild to the park, but I’m afraid to walk with them,” Diallo said. “I’m afraid to take my grandchildren to the park.”
It wasn’t always this way. Before the 1940s, the park and its surrounding neighborhoods, which today include Parkview/Woodbrook, Penn North and Reservoir Hill, used to meet organically. Small residential streets were all that separated the park from homes. Streets turned into two dozen pedestrian entrances that dotted the edge of the park.
Then came decisions by city leaders in the 1940s and 1960s that isolated Druid Hill Park. Expressways to the south and east severed portions, creating a gulf between the green expanse and the historically Black and Jewish neighborhoods. Instead of crossing two-lane residential streets to reach the park, residents face a mad dash across spans five to nine lanes wide.
Today, only about eight entrances remain. Iron fencing bars entry along Druid Park Lake Drive, and heavy woods and an incline make entry difficult to the northwest. A park that was once a jewel of Baltimore and a rival to New York’s Central Park has been effectively out of reach for decades to those who live closest.
There is, however, hope on the horizon — with plans that may be further fueled by federal stimulus money.
A $140 million public works project in Druid Hill Park has upended the area and provided a canvas for creative minds. Since 2018, work has been underway to replace an open reservoir with two massive underground tanks needed to treat city drinking water in accordance with federal standards. The lake has been partially drained during the installation of the tanks and traffic on Druid Park Lake Drive has been funneled through a construction zone.
Amid the hum of heavy equipment, dual plans have taken shape: a re-imagined, more recreational use for the lake, akin to how visitors once used the park; and a study of streets surrounding the park so nearby residents can reach the proposed amenities. A near-final concept for the redesign of the lake area is due to be presented at the end of the month to the public, and the results of the street study are due before the end of the year.
“This is really a significant moment for the park,” said former Democratic Councilman Leon Pinkett, a 20-year resident of Reservoir Hill who pushed for the street study. “I just pray people remain vigilant. I pray we don’t settle, but we take this moment and opportunity to make the park the best that it can be.”
Hope on the horizon
When Graham Coreil-Allen first bought a home in the area in 2013, his elderly neighbors would sit outside on folding chairs when there were events in the park, listening from across the street rather than attempting to cross. Coreil-Allen, a public artist and president of the New Auchentoroly Terrace Association, said he’s watched young mothers with strollers dodging traffic moving at 60 mph.
“The street is designed like an expressway, but this is a historically Black residential neighborhood, working class,” he said. “It’s completely inequitable.”
The struggle is a disappointment to Diallo, who bought her home near the park 12 years ago specifically for the area’s walkability. Like half the residents who live in the neighborhood around her, Diallo relies on walking and public transportation to get around. Druid Hill Park serves as a thoroughfare for Diallo to walk to various destinations.
But on a recent weekday afternoon, few visitors to the park were on foot. Instead, the streets inside were pocked by drivers, parked with their tailgates open and perched in folding chairs next to their cars: a driver’s destination. Out in the traffic lanes nearby, still more evidence littered the ground: remnants of past crashes, like bumpers and broken headlights.
The severing of Druid Hill Park from its neighbors has been a reality for decades, but in recent years, there has been momentum for change.
The street study has been underway since early this year to examine traffic and pedestrian patterns along much of the park’s southern and western borders. It’s been undertaken with the “complete streets” approach, part of a national movement to redesign streets to prioritize safety and access for all users, whether they are drivers, pedestrians, cyclists or users of public transportation.
The results of the study centered around Druid Hill Park are due between Thanksgiving and Christmas and will include two or three concept plans for improvements that would prioritize pedestrians, runners bicyclists, as well as those with accessibility issues, said William Ethridge, a city planner with the Department of Transportation. Better access to public transit will also be a priority.
Numerous community meetings have been held to gather input. Preliminary ideas call for improved sidewalks, pedestrian bump-outs that shorten crosswalks and encourage cars to slow down, and the expansion of the “big jump,” a lane of Druid Park Lake Drive that has been temporarily converted into a bike and pedestrian path that spans Interstate 83, Ethridge said.
Planners are also discussing increasing the number of entrances to the park — a decision that would be made by the Department of Recreation and Parks, he said. The departments have had two sit-down meetings on the topic and communicate regularly, he said.
The results of the study will need to dovetail with plans for rehabbing the lake section of the interior of the park — a design process well underway. Installation of the tanks next to the lake is nearing completion and Recreation and Parks is scheduled to take back control of the area in 2022.
After a year of work and multiple public input sessions, designers from Baltimore-based Unknown Studio have created a cohesive draft plan to be presented to the community at a Sept. 28 meeting. It calls for restoring the lake for recreational use while making the site habitable for wildlife and plants — both priorities gathered from neighborhood input, said Adam Boarman, chief of capital development for Recreation and Parks.
The design includes boating and fishing opportunities, as well as swimming — a possibility now that the lake isn’t being used directly as a source of drinking water. Along the shore, in addition to the restoration of a popular walking trail, designers envision an amphitheater for concerts and a cafe. A bridge would span a portion of the lake to provide new vantage points.
Boarman estimated that it would cost $40 million to $50 million to build out the lake portion of the park based on that design. Right now, funding is in place for the first phase of the construction document process, which would take 12 to 18 months, he said.
DOT has not yet released proposed plans for the streets around the park, but a public meeting will be held Oct. 7, officials said.
Officials from both departments cautioned that the implementation of designs will be slow. DOT officials said their portion will likely be a five- to seven-year process.
But seeing the plans come to fruition would feel like “justice served,” Boarman said.
“These people deserve to safely access this amazing park that is at their doorstep,” he said. “Most people have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. But some of those walks are safer than others.”
‘Baltimore can get it right’
Funding for the ambitious plans is likely to be a challenge.
DOT officials didn’t have an estimate available for their portion of the project, but it’s likely to be substantial.
A potential avenue for officials to consider is American Rescue Plan funding. Baltimore was awarded $640 million from the federal coronavirus recovery package, most of which has yet to be allocated. The city is hiring staff to analyze applications for the funding. Projects will be scored on a rubric that includes the “public good” a project will generate, as well as its impact on equity.
Federal officials have stated that projects “indirectly” related to the pandemic could be eligible, such as ideas that improve green space, something people across the country used more during the pandemic.
Both DOT and Recreation and Parks officials said they are considering ARP funding, as well as grants and public-private partnerships.
Baltimore officials also hope the city will receive money from Democratic President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill being considered by Congress. The plan includes significant funding for roads, but also money dedicated to reconnecting communities divided by transportation infrastructure.
Pinkett said failing to tap into federal money for Druid Hill Park would be “shortsighted.” Improving access to the park would have ripple effects: helping decrease public safety issues, improving sanitation conditions and boosting overall health in the neighborhoods around it, he said.
The residents of West Baltimore didn’t have a voice in the decision to build a highway through their community, Pinkett said, but they’re being heard today.
“Sometimes you can’t right everything done in history, but I think this is a time when Baltimore can get it right,” he said.
“It would say when we talk about equity, we really mean it now. ... Why can’t we have promenades and walkability and properly lit streets and thoroughfares and road diets and reduced traffic?” he asked.
“That’s important to the residents in West Baltimore — just as important as it is to the residents of South Baltimore. It would mean a lot to the residents in these communities.”