A feisty crowd estimated by organizers at nearly 500 people gathered in East Baltimore last night to voice opposition to a proposal to add a loop road and 96 more parking spaces at Patterson Park.
Carrying signs (“No more cars, no more parking, no more paving”) and peppering city officials with pointed questions (“What’s the hidden agenda?”), they delivered possibly their most apt message at one point with a show of hands.
“How many people walked here tonight?” asked Bill Vondrasek, acting head of the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Almost every hand in the room shot up.
Parking Would Make Park Safer, City Says
How they got to the meeting – held in the park itself, at the Virginia Baker Recreation Center – was a question at the heart of the residents’ dispute with the city’s plan.
Vondrasek made clear over the course of the evening the city’s rationale for the project.
As the rec center gets a multi-million dollar makeover and if Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot goes ahead with her proposal to move senior services to the park’s Casino building, he said, park usage will increase and some of these people will find walking there too difficult and dangerous.
“We thought about safety,” Vondrasek said. “Is everybody who participates in these activities going to walk here?”
“Yes!” people in the crowd shouted.
“Will parents with strollers walk from a mile away?” Vondrasek said.
“Yes!” they shouted. “We did!” several parents called out.
Although there was a system of submitting questions via index cards, Vondrasek engaged in a fair amount of direct dialogue with the crowd.
Every hypothetical Vondrasek brought up – rec center employees closing up late at night, people carrying cash from fees they collect for sports team – was met with scorn.
“Baloney! We’ve done it this way for 30 years!” “Light rail!” “Shuttle buses!” “Bike racks!” “Golf carts!” “Walk, it’s good for you!”
“I don’t think we could ask the staff to park in the street,” Vondrasek said. “We do!” the crowd shouted back. People don’t drive to the park in their cars, one woman explained, because “if you did you’d lose your parking place!”
Several people said later they felt the core problem between the residents and the city comes comes down to a culture clash.
“I think they’re very out of touch with how people use the park,” said Joe Di Mattina, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association.
“You can tell that the people who wrote this plan live in the suburbs and park in garages,” added his wife, Jen Di Mattina.
Cars Already in the Park
The city’s plan for the park had its origins in the health department’s wish to shut down the John Booth Senior Center in Highlandtown and transfer activities to the Casino. (That decision was driven by a loss of federal funding, Barbot reiterated last night.)
Seniors with Alzhemier’s and related illness using day services at the Casino were recently “transitioned” elsewhere in the city, Barbot said, adding that seniors’ use of the casino would not, under her proposal, exceed the previous group’s usage. “They’ll just be getting there a different way.”
Expanded rec center programs, Vondrasek said, might increase use of the park “by the hundreds per day.”
Vondrasek said another reason for the proposed loop road and additional parking spaces is to better manage the cars that are already there.
“What you have now is more dangerous than a space that’s [properly] designed for” parking, he said.
Vondrasek cited city plans to narrow 25-foot-wide park roads to 12-foot wide paths and to raze the cinder-block building and parking area used by Rec and Parks workers in the northwest part of the park. (Plans are to move the maintenance yard to Clifton Park.)
Those moves, according to a slide he showed, will result in a 45 percent reduction (4.78 acres) of pavement.
He pointed to other city parks, such as Cylburn Arboretum, where parking is clustered in one area, leaving the remainder for a pedestrian experience.
“This is a different area!” someone said. “People drink in those parking lots!” another said.
Politicians and the Process
The vocal crowd stayed respectful for the most part, though some things they heard sent them over the edge, such as Vondrasek’s statement that the project plan prepared by Hord Coplan Macht only cost the city a couple hundred dollars at most.
“Coplan Macht won’t open their door for $100!” someone cracked, as the room erupted. (The existence of a detailed proposal with sketches and maps, coming before neighborhood groups were consulted, has left a sour taste with many and helped fuel opposition.)
Some officials got applause. The crowd cheered loudly for City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose office organized the hearing and is planning three others.
“This has nothing to do with the usage of the Casino,’ Kraft said, urging the crowd to stay focused on whether the plan means “the entry of one more car into Patterson Park.”
“No more cars in Patterson Park!” he said, to the roar of approval from the audience.
Kraft said City Council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young sent his support and noted the presence of other supporters in the room: State Sen. Bill Ferguson and State Del. Luke Clippinger were also there. Delegate Brian McHale was also mentioned.
Absences were noted as well.
“Where’s [City Councilman] Warren Branch?” someone shouted.
Even more frequently, people in the crowd noted the absence of the city’s top official.
“Where’s the mayor?” was a repeated refrain.
So far, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has left the substantive comments on the project to Vondrasek and Barbot, though she did lash out last week at Kraft, saying that by disclosing the plan to citizens too early he had “poisoned the well.”