Rats! Scenery is changing Landscaping: The attractive ivy beds of Baltimore have become a favorite downtown habitat for vermin. Now the city has an unsettling plan for the pests.

November 01, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

City workers are ripping up all of Baltimore's ivy.

Those rats.

Quite literally, those rats and other vermin have turned the decorative ivy beds along the city's most prominent streets into prime rodent real estate, where creatures burrow under the ornamental displays and build nests in the picturesque plantings.

To fight back, crews from the Department of Public Works are tearing out all the ivy on city property and replacing it with plantings meant to keep the vermin away and neaten the look of downtown. If the landscaping plan works, there won't be a beady eye in sight.

"The experts tell us, 'Where there's ivy, there's rats,' " said Public Works Director George G. Balog.

"So let's get the ivy out of there."

While the Dumpster still ranks No. 1 in rodent appeal, the downtown ivy also has a loyal following.

So the city plans to spend an estimated $400,000 over the next year to run the pests out of the public gardens near the Inner Harbor, City Hall and selected downtown plazas.

Although many city visitors are sad to see the ivy go, they have grown wary of it. Folks had learned, after all, that a patch of brown in the underbrush wasn't always mulch.

"Things scurry out and it's frightening," said Paula Hnasko, a concierge who regularly walks down Pratt Street at 5: 45 a.m. to the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

"I don't faint, but that's definitely not what I want to see in the morning."

Particularly for restaurants, rodent sightings can mean upset clientele and lost money -- even when the pests stay on city property.

"A rodent comes out of the ivy and people get incredibly upset," said Ann Benson, a manager at Strapazza, a restaurant with an outdoor cafe on Pratt Street. "People said it was disgusting and it made them sick. Then you have to 'comp' a check and apologize."

Controlling rodent habitat is critical especially now, as downtown undergoes another construction boom and vermin are literally blasted out of their old homes. As new buildings are erected -- the convention center on Pratt Street and now the Ravens Stadium a mile from downtown -- the rats and mice troop across the city.

With so many wandering rodents, it's no wonder the ivy had a pulse. For rodents, the ivy had it all: The beds were thick with cover and full of edible trash, the vines were good for climbing, the soft soil was perfect for burrowing and the locales were cozy and protected from trampling feet.

When the ivy came to the Inner Harbor in the early 1980s, then Mayor William Donald Schaefer saw beauty in the thick plant and deemed it a graceful addition to the city's gateway. Even now, he remains loyal to the ivy and says that if it harbors rats, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration has only itself to blame.

"If you maintained the ivy, you would see if there were rat burrows and you'd take care of it," he said.

"All you'd have to do is take a walk in it and see rats running all over the place. You don't have to be a genius to know it."

But Balog said that no matter how well the city maintained the ivy, the vermin were going to find the underbrush because it was the thickest cover downtown. Now, a private landscaper is designing a plan that city officials hope will keep even a megarodent at bay.

After taking out the ivy, city work crews will put down close-clipped grass, a layer of wire mesh under the flower beds and well-pruned plantings -- features that are meant to discourage critters from burrowing and nesting. Meanwhile, work crews are filling ratholes in the old ivy beds with dirt and taking out the remaining vermin with rat poison.

Even without the rodent problem, some said the ivy was looking scraggly and needed to be replaced. Downtown property owners, most of them merchants, already paid $1.9 million in extra taxes this year for added grounds maintenance and other services to keep the city spaces tourist-friendly.

By the end of this month, Public Works crews are expected to finish the work begun in August of removing the public ivy on Pratt Street, from Charles to Calvert streets near McKeldin Fountain, and at City Hall. In the spring, the city will remove more ivy on Pratt Street, Light Street and at Charles and Hopkins plazas.

The new gardens will feature mums in the fall, day lilies in the spring and summer, and juniper and red barberry bushes year-round.

Among those who love the plan is Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group that is working to spiff up the business district.

"This beautifies the Pratt Street promenade," she said. "Plus, it keeps us several steps ahead of the furry creatures."

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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