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Is the city selling a neighborhood park to Pompeian Olive Oil?

The company wants to expand into Janney Street Park but residents of this industrial corner of southeast Baltimore don’t want to lose their little patch of green

Above: Cathy Gentry, center sitting, and neighbors who oppose the sale of Janney Street Park.

With sustainability on the tip of many politicians’ tongues, and city dwellers trying to grow their tree canopies and turn vacant lots into community gardens, it might come as a surprise that Baltimore officials would sell a neighborhood park with no concrete plan to replace it.

But that appears to be what is happening to Janney Street Park in southeast Baltimore’s heavily industrial Kresson community, just east of Baltimore Highlands near Highlandtown.

Baltimore Development Corporation’s (BDC) spokeswoman Joann Logan confirmed that the city is indeed negotiating to sell Janney Street Park to Pompeian Olive Oil.

“Pompeian Oil is expanding. BDC, in partnership with the Department of Recreation and Parks, is negotiating Pompeian’s purchase of the Janney Street Park behind its building,” Logan wrote in an email to The Brew.

City officials have been talking to residents about their plan to sell a small park to allow this company to expand. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

City officials have been talking to residents about their plan to sell a small public park to allow Pompeian to expand. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

But neighbors like Cathy Gentry don’t want to see this little patch of green recreational space, a rarity in their industrialized neighborhood, go away.

“Children are out here every day,” said Cathy Gentry, a Kresson resident and mother of three who lives on Janney Street and opposes the sale.

“There’s a little boy named Nicholas who likes to hang out in the tree over there. He spends so much time in the tree he hides his snacks there.”

There’s a hazy promise of a replacement park but it would be smaller, farther away – a fenced-in playground in a high-traffic area with no open field.

Plans to Expand

According to its web site, Pompeian imports olive oil and blends and bottles it at its 4201 Pulaski Highway location. A spokesman for the olive oil company acknowledged The Brew’s e-mails; however questions regarding Pompeian’s planned expansion went unanswered.

“Unfortunately, the person heading up this project is out of the country until late next week,” Pompeian’s marketing coordinator Casey Smith responded, “. . . he is the only person authorized to answer such questions.”

Rec and Parks spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers told The Brew the park has not been sold, but acknowledged that while no decision has been made, the agency did make a presentation to its citizens’ advisory board regarding the sale of the land.

The 78,000-square-foot-park, playground, and basketball courts are located at 140 North Janney Street (bordered roughly by Fairmount Avenue to the south, Haven Street to the west, Janney Street to the east, and the rear of Pompeian Olive Oil to the north.)

Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, who represents the second district where Pompeian and Kresson are located, said the olive oil company had approached the city more than a year ago about its desire to expand.

Scott toured Pompeian last fall and posted a video about it on his weekly video blog, “On Second Thought with Councilman Brandon M. Scott,” in which he praised the company and said the expansion would bring “more jobs.” (Note: Scott received a $1,000 campaign contribution from the company in 2013).

“I Thought we’d get a Baseball Diamond”

Rec and Parks and the BDC arranged a November 2013 meeting with residents of Kresson at the BDC’s Emerging Technology Center (ETC) on Haven Street, about a block from the park, to discuss “The Future of Janney Street Park.” A second meeting was held in February 2014.

Gentry, who attended both meetings with other neighbors, recalls going to the first one thinking it was about the park’s future.

“I thought the park had a future – that we’d get something new. I thought we’d get a baseball diamond or something like that,” she said. “The thought was the city would fix it up. The city had kind of let the park go.”

(Online records show that in FY 2003, Rec and Parks was awarded an $80,000 grant for new playground equipment from Program Open Space, a program of the state Department of Natural Resources. A phone call to Program Open Space regarding the grant was not returned in time for The Brew’s deadline.)

Jobs Promised, Park Described as Eyesore

But the meeting, according to Gentry, was not about park improvements – it was about the park’s possible sale.

Residents say  the park's playground is a popular place for neighborhood kids  (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

Residents say the park’s playground is a popular place for neighborhood kids. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney).

“Basically, Pompeian wanted the park so they could expand, and the city wanted to sell it to them,” Gentry said.

“Brandon Scott said there would be new jobs. Rec and Parks didn’t seem to care what happened one way or the other,” she added.

At the meeting, Gentry said the park was portrayed as a neighborhood eyesore that attracts crime.

Scott, who was at the meeting, said in an earlier interview that “a majority of the neighbors who attended said the larger field in Janney Street Park doesn’t get used, and the park attracts drug users.”

“People at the meeting said to me, ‘I go to the park at night to smoke weed,’” Scott said.

Gentry concedes that the park has its problems: prostitution about a decade ago and currently, illegal dumping around the park’s perimeter.

Illegal dunping around the park's playground area. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

Illegal dumping around the park’s perimeter. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

Larry Adkins, who also lives on Janney Street, said the dumping has gotten worse lately. “But it’s mostly from outside of the neighborhood.”

There was also an arson in Janney Street Park over a year ago. “It happened around the time other parks had fires set in them,” said Gentry’s son, Ronald Downey.

Even with its challenges, Gentry said, the park gets used regularly and is important to the residents of the neighborhood. Adults, as well as children, play in the park, Gentry and Adkins said.

“Latino men in the neighborhood were playing soccer in the field there just two nights ago,” she said. “And there’s another group that strings up a volleyball net and plays volleyball in the basketball courts.”

The park gets used for more than recreation; its trees are among the only shade trees in a neighborhood full of asphalt, concrete, and truck traffic.

“Not everybody here has central air, and we all have concrete yards,” she said. “Even the Pompeian workers use the park. They come over here and eat lunch. They use the area for shade.” Rec and Parks cuts the grass pretty regularly, said Downey, 18.

“They are better about it since the fire,” he said. “I remember when I was a kid, it seemed like the grass got so high it was up to my head.”

New Playground Near the Loading Dock?

If the park is sold, a replacement park will be built for the neighborhood, according to city officials.

“The community will be getting a new park and details are being worked out,” BDC’s Logan saidd. “And Pompeian will pay for it,” Scott added.

The new park’s location and size have yet to be decided, however, and residents have concerns.

“They told us we would get another park, but it could have only two things. We had a choice: a community garden and a playground, or a playground and basketball courts. We would lose the field,” Gentry said, noting that Rec and Parks proposed a replacement on city-owned land across the street from The Loading Dock, a nonprofit building materials reuse center on North Kresson Street.

A possible site for a  replacement park is across the street from the Loading Dock, a salvaged construction materials company. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

A possible site for a replacement park is across the street from the Loading Dock, a non-profit that specializes in building materials salvage. (Photo by Danielle Sweeney)

Scott confirmed that the Janney Street location near The Loading Dock was being considered and that the relocated park would be smaller than the original.

A preliminary “conceptual relocation plan” obtained from Rec and Parks shows a fenced playground, small children’s bike path, trees, and new basketball courts located on Janney Street with an (unnamed) commercial building across the street, two-way traffic, and on-street parking.

Leslie Kirkland, director of The Loading Dock, was contacted for this story, but has not yet responded.

Gentry worries that The Loading Dock has so much traffic that kids coming and going to the new playground would be in danger.

“Do you know how many cars and trucks go in and out of that place on the weekends? Kids have been killed and injured in traffic accidents in this neighborhood before.”

“We Didn’t Think Anybody Lived There”

Gentry opposes the sale of the park for many reasons, chief among them that the low-income community needs to keep the few resources that it has, especially scarce green space.

She also believes the city could have been more transparent about the process.

According to Gentry, Pompeian, the BDC, and Rec and Parks have communicated to the neighborhood about the potential sale of Janney Street Park solely through fliers stuffed in people’s doors.

“Not everyone in the neighborhood speaks and reads English well, and of those who do, not everyone got the fliers,” she said.

Adkins, who lives one house away from where the replacement playground might be located – next to a city-owned vacant building – said he didn’t know about the Janney St. Park meeting until Gentry called him.

“I told him, ‘You better get down here. They are talking about selling the park.’” Gentry said. Adkins came to the meeting.

“When I asked the city why I didn’t get a flier in my door – I told them where I lived – they said, ‘We didn’t think anybody lived there,’” Adkins recalled.

Petition in Spanish and English

The second meeting of the BDC, Rec and Parks, Pompeian, and Kresson residents about the park’s future was even less well attended because it was held during a snow storm, said Gentry.

After that one, Gentry posted a petition on Change.org opposing the sale of the park, and went door to door with a separate handwritten petition in Spanish and English for her neighbors who don’t have computer access.

The Change petition now has more than 160 signatures. Gentry’s handwritten petition, she said, has another 40.

Gentry said she wasn’t a bit surprised when The Brew called and told her the BDC was negotiating the sale of the park.

“I knew the city was going to do what the city is going to do,” she said. “I believe there are better locations for Pompeian’s expansion. We proposed several of them at the meeting . . . but no one seemed interested in listening.”

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