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Commentaryby Tim Almaguer5:27 pmSep 30, 20120

Plan to add parking in Patterson Park goes against years of progress

OPINION: The former director of the Friends of Patterson Park explains what’s behind the “don’t pave the park” outcry.

Above: The restored 1891 Pagoda at Baltimore’s Patterson Park.

For me this is a no brainer. The city’s plan to create 96 parking spaces and a loop road inside Patterson Park will not only sacrifice precious urban green space in a crowded part of the city. It will also undercut the very reason why Patterson has become such a great success story.

Just 15 years ago, Patterson Park was not today’s popular hot spot for strolling, jogging, fishing, sports, outdoor music or simply enjoying an oasis away from the noise and asphalt of the city.

Then most of the park’s historic structures were decaying, abandoned and on the verge of collapse. There were few programs or events, and, as a result, the area had become fertile ground for crime, blight and overflowing trash to flourish.

Seeing all of the neglect and dilapidation, much of the surrounding community viewed the park as an eyesore rather than an asset.
The first of four hearings on the parking plan will be held tomorrow (Oct. 1) at 6:30 p.m. at the Virginia Baker Rec Center inside Patterson Park at 2601 East Baltimore St.

The key to Patterson’s transformation was the engagement of that same community. It took a shared vision for what this great open space had been and what it could offer to reverse the downward slide.

I was fortunate enough to be part of this spirited citizen involvement as a community organizer, keeper of the Pagoda, and executive director of the Friends of Patterson Park.

The Friends helped organize and coordinate the volunteers who planted and watered the trees, cleaned out the boat lake, maintained the historic Pagoda observatory, and coached tennis and soccer to hundreds of kids, all in partnership with the Recreation and Parks Department.

To have so many of those same citizens now up in arms – more than 5,000 people have signed a “Don’t Pave Patterson Park” petition on the Friends website – we need to step back and think about what makes these 137 acres of public land so special.

Volunteers Were Critical to Success

When Friends entered into collaboration with Rec and Parks, we knew we had to maintain the same values, ethics and mission of the park’s public-spirited founders that started with William Patterson, who donated five acres to the city as a public walk in 1827.

Proposed parking lots and new loop road tying Casino building (at bottom of sketch) to East Baltimore Street (at top).

Proposed parking lots and new loop road tying Casino building (at bottom of sketch) to Baltimore Street (at top). Below map of the full park.

The 1998 Patterson Park Master Plan was a starting point. It was a bricks-and-mortar plan to renovate the neglected structures, including the Pulaski Monument, the Pagoda observatory and the Boat Lake.

Each of these improvements had community input and involvement in the design process. As the renovations were completed, the next phase took hold.

This involved sustaining the park by the Friends because Rec and Parks’ operating budget for maintenance, operation and programming was so low.

Here is where the partnership was all-important.

Beginning in April 2002, for example, the Friends were responsible for maintaining the Pagoda and surrounding gardens and to provide programs and events to breathe life into this historic structure.

Among the issues we constantly debated: Will an event or program increase the number of community members entering and enjoying the park? What will be the impact on the park environment? Will it preserve the landscape in a positive way?

One principle we held dear was that there could be no net loss of green space. If anything, we wanted to increase the amount of green space.

The Community Was Our Client

We also knew that the community had to be part of process. They were the clients for all that happened. Likewise, if they did not feel connected and invested, they would be less likely to take on the stewardship necessary for the park’s success.

The current parking controversy brings up several points directly related to these observations. One involves the proposed use of the Casino Building as a senior center by the Health Department.

This magnificent stone structure built in 1893 by Charles H. Latrobe (the same person who built the Pagoda) was specifically designed for use by the entire community. The Casino has a long history of free and open events from dances and puppet shows to community bingo and craft fairs.

The building now lies empty, the Health Department having closed a small adult daycare center on the premises. The building and surrounding land is protected by a historic easement administered by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Logo from the Friends of Patterson Park.

Logo of the Friends of Patterson Park.

A busy senior center with parking spaces and a loop drive – plus an enlarged roadway for cars entering the park at Luzerne Avenue and Baltimore Street – is not in keeping with the Casino’s mission. The center should be located elsewhere, in an area more suitable for seniors and nearer to public transportation.

Beginning with tomorrow’s public hearing on the parking plan, the battle over the future of Patterson is likely to get very emotional. But it can also serve as a public forum for important questions about the vision of and mission for my, your, our public recreation and common green spaces.

Let’s hope the mayor listens.
Tim Almaguer began working for the Friends in 2000 as a community organizer and project coordinator. Between 2005 and 2011, he was the executive director. He is now a program director at the Safe and Sound Campaign working on city park and youth recreation issues.

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