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Neighborhoodsby Fern Shen9:14 amApr 12, 20240

With Lake Ashburton now a shallow, muddy puddle, residents are fed up with six-year-old reservoir project

After the DPW project closed the park, claimed nearly 200 trees, blew construction dust into their homes and, lately, rendered the lake a drained, mucky eyesore, this proud West Baltimore neighborhood wants answers from city officials.

Above: Vera Robinson and neighbor Jessica Phalin live across the street from Lake Ashburton, where reservoir tanks remain uncovered and the water level is low. (Fern Shen)

Back in 2018, when the city cut down 198 trees around Lake Ashburton for a reservoir project, the residents of Hanlon Park in West Baltimore were assured their beloved green space would be beautiful again.

After the installation of two underground tanks to hold the reservoir water, city officials promised, the lake and the surrounding parkland would be well-maintained, with new trees, a playground and other features.

Now after six years of construction and disruption, many residents have lost patience.

The tops of the reservoir tanks, which became operational in December, remain exposed – two big, white metal circles, each 434 feet in diameter.

The lake itself has become a shallow and stagnant muddy pit – a shrunken version of itself, surrounded by a wide collar of gravelly gray dirt.

Once a favored spot for West Baltimore families, nature lovers and joggers, the area remains closed to the public.

“We’re so tired of looking at mud,” exclaimed Vera Robinson, a retired correctional officer who has lived on North Hilton Street, facing the lake, for the last 36 years.

“First we lost our trees. Then we had six years of blowing dust. And now this,” Robinson said yesterday, showing The Brew the view out her front door.

The Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton construction messes: It didn’t have to be this way (10/4/18)

The mounds of raw dirt, swirling bits of trash, piles of big white pipes and noisy construction activity are unsightly and unhealthy, added her next-door neighbor, Jessica Phalin.

“My windows are constantly covered with dust. I have given up on trying to keep them clean,” said Phalin a former food service professional, now driving trucks for Amazon. “On my curtains it’s a black residue.”

Without the mature trees that once stood between Liberty Heights Avenue and the reservoir, gusts of wind whip across the lake carrying fine particles right into their homes, the women said.

Dave Weir, William V. Gwynn Jr., Portia Smith, James Haynes, Charlie Mae Lamb, Linda Batts and Tony Wade stand above Lake Ashburton. Behind the reservoir: barren, tree-stripped Hanlon Park. (Mark Reutter)

THEN: In 2018, Dave Weir, William V. Gwynn Jr., Portia Smith, James Haynes, Charlie Mae Lamb, Linda Batts and Tony Wade stood above Lake Ashburton. In the background was Hanlon Park, stripped of vegetation in preparation for the reservoir tanks. NOW: The white reservoir tanks lay completed and exposed in Hanlon Park above partially drained Lake Ashburton. (Mark Reutter, Fern Shen)

Lake Ashburton (Fern Shen)

Permanently Shallow?

The Department of Public Works (DPW) oversees the $137 million tank project at Ashburton and a similar project at Druid Hill Park. It did not respond to repeated written requests for comment from The Brew.

Robinson, Phalin and their neighbors say they also can’t get answers from the city to such questions as:

• Why is water level at Lake Ashburton so low?

• Is it correct, as residents have heard, that the lake’s water level will permanently be some three feet lower than it was previously?

• When will the lake and park be restored?

• And when will the promised trees be planted?

Restoration work was supposed to begin this summer, but was then pushed back to fall 2024. Now residents fear more delay.

“This is not the Lake Ashburton that we’re accustomed to. Many of us are confused about what’s going on,” says E.R. Shipp, a journalist and Morgan State University professor who lives near the reservoir.

Shipp said she and her neighbors have noticed “the imbalance of soil to water” for months, but have not been able to get answers from the city.

Neighbors have noticed the imbalance of soil to water for months, but have not been able to get answers from the city.

Residents are “anxious to regain access to the park and to see the end of this lengthy project,” adds Linda Batts, president of the Hanlon Park Improvement Association.

In addition to the lower water level, Batts said the community has been concerned about DPW’s removal of the plants that once shored up the lakefront.

“The community is unclear on the impact of removing the vegetation/flora that formed the embankment upon the water level  and fauna/wildlife,” she said.

Lake Ashburton (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: A view of semi-drained Lake Ashburton facing its northern perimeter along Liberty Heights Avenue. BELOW: The homes and shoreline along North Hilton Street. (Fern Shen)

Water level at Baltimore's Lake Ashburton low after the city finished burying the reservoir there in twin tanks. (Fern Shen)

“Put an end to this”

From the start, difficulties and delays have slowed Baltimore’s effort to replace its open-air reservoirs with underground tanks in order to comply with tightened federal drinking water requirements.

The discovery of hexavalent chromium in soil samples at Lake Ashburton raised concerns early on, but DPW officials said the levels were below the state threshold of concern.

Chiding Baltimore for missed deadlines and foot-dragging, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last May ordered DPW to complete the work, setting a hard November 30 deadline for the Ashburton tanks to go online.

Health-harming cryptosporidium, found in the nearby Druid Lake reservoir, added urgency to the initiative.

When DPW couldn’t meet the deadline at Ashburton – because elevated chlorine levels in the tank water required flushing and re-testing – the EPA gave the city an extra two weeks.

Now residents are focused on the city completing the promised restoration work and getting their park and lake back.

“We’ve put up with so much for so long, our community is torn up, our homes have lost value,” Robinson said. “They need to put an end to this.”

Work underway in 2020 for Baltimore's Ashburton Reservoir underground tank project. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Work underway in 2020 for Baltimore’s Ashburton Reservoir underground tank project.  BELOW: A city sign for the 100-acre Hanlon Park, designed more than a century ago by the celebrated Olmstead Brothers Landscape Architects. (Fern Shen)

hanlon park sign lake ashburtonTo reach a reporter: fern.shen@baltimorebrew.com

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