Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks' $186 million renovation 'worth waiting for'

The Cahill Performing Arts Center has seen better days.

There is ivy growing on the walls of the West Baltimore recreation center, built more than 40 years ago. A couple of bricks are missing from a waist-level wall that leads to the front entrance, where a mail-slot cover is bent jaggedly.


"Cahill was built with great expectations," said David Carroll, president of Windsor Hills Neighbors Inc., a local community association of about 700 households. "It was pretty traditionally a rec center. That was the mentality, and things have changed pretty dramatically in the whole field. So it's been sort of a struggling place for a long time, but we've supported it."

Cahill is one of eight recreation centers in Baltimore earmarked for substantial upgrades under an ambitious renovation project headed by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks. Its updated Recreation and Aquatics Facilities Analysis and Plan, whose total cost of implementation exceeds $185 million, also calls for building two new recreation centers, tripling the number of indoor pools from three to nine, and increasing staffing and operating hours at many centers.


Paul Taylor, chief of capital development for Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks, is heading the effort. Taylor, who helped revitalize Atlanta's Department of Parks and Recreation, said the changing demographics and needs of the communities surrounding the recreation centers have necessitated an overhaul of their purpose and design.

"We've got a different generation now," he said. "We've got a digital generation, millennials, a lot of single professionals, single-parent families, a lot of seniors on the horizon. So all of those segments of society really need to be accommodated in terms of what you're providing in programming, and that reflects the type of buildings you're building and the types of parks you're providing."

As the population has aged, so have the buildings, city urban planner Kate Brower said.

"Basically, our recreation centers and aquatics facilities were built in mostly the '60s and '70s, and although we had renovated them, they really were antiquated and they needed to be replaced," she said. "So instead of looking at some piecemeal, we felt we really needed to look at them as a holistic, city-wide plan, looking at what the existing facilities were, what areas they served, where there were gaps in areas in the city that were being served with recreation and aquatics services. And we also looked at national trends and at what other cities were doing. So we did a pretty extensive analysis of existing commissions and what other people were doing and looking at programming to develop the new plan."

After several years of working with neighborhood groups and securing funding, the department has unveiled the particulars of the project. Cahill is slated to expand to 32,000 square feet, with performing-arts facilities, an indoor pool and a fitness area.

The plan for the Druid Hill Park Outdoor Aquatic Center is to convert the pool to a water park with showers, locker rooms and a concession stand.

The 32,500-square-foot Cherry Hill Fitness and Wellness Center will replace the Patapsco Recreation Center and Cherry Hill indoor-pool facilities and feature an indoor pool, gymnasium and fitness area.

Some projects already have begun or been completed. Finished in June 2014, Morrell Park Community Center has a gymnasium, computer lab and meeting rooms.


Construction of the Rita Church Fitness and Wellness Center at Clifton Park and C.C. Jackson Fitness and Wellness Center is scheduled to finish next year. A historic pavilion at Rita Church was converted into a building with locker rooms, a computer lab and a game room, and a gym and restrooms are being added. In partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a new baseball field was built at C.C. Jackson, and parking, lighting and a building with locker and game rooms are next.

Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corporation, which represents nearly 10,000 residents and 3,300 households, said Rita Church meets a need to engage area youth.

"What was missing was the amenities that the Rita Church Center addresses now," he said. "There's a place for kids to safely assemble and congregate indoors under proper supervision, a computer learning lab, a game room, a kitchen. It was building upon that outdoor-recreational theme, just to add other amenities to complement the outdoor recreation in the area. … I would say that it was needed."

William Vondrasek, deputy director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, said one goal is to diversify the programs the centers can offer. He cited an example from his own family life: During a visit to the YMCA near his home, he will swim laps, his wife will go to yoga, and his children will play basketball in the gymnasium.

"There's going to be enough room that the seniors have their multipurpose room that turns into the yoga room in the evening," Vondrasek said. "The seniors typically use the centers in the morning Monday through Friday. And then the seniors' room turns into the yoga or Pilates room in the evening after Mom gets off from work and brings her kids with her. … You can bring the whole family, and everyone can do what they want to do, and that's how we can appeal to a diverse cross section of folks."

The project's timetable will depend on how quickly the city can sell four parking garages and turn over the projected $40 million in revenue to the plan. With the funds, Vondrasek estimated the building and renovations could be completed in six years. Without the funding, the proposals could take 10 to 15 years to implement.


Then there's the matter of running and operating the centers. Vondrasek said the operational costs will require another $5 to $6 million annually, but said: "We think that's inexpensive given what you'd be getting from all of these fitness and wellness centers and pools and athletic fields and complexes."

Carroll, the Windsor Hills president, said his group and others intend to work closely with the department to promote and manage the Cahill Performing Arts Center. "It's great to build a center, but are you going to have the people power and the money to run it as long as it's sustainable?" he asked rhetorically. "Those are all the kinds of things we're going to be talking about."

Construction on the center could begin as early as January and is projected to be finished in November 2017. Is two years a long time to wait?

"When you've been waiting 30 years, no," he said with a laugh. "This is well worth waiting for."