Long-idle tract set to grow Refurbish: Planners will blaze 4.5-mile exercise trail through Gwynns Falls and Leakin parks, the first new access to them in a quarter-century.

October 28, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A new spring is in store for Gwynns Falls and Leakin parks, the West Baltimore open spaces whose leafy hillsides, daredevil sledding runs and sunny wildflower meadows now lie wrapped in neglect, disuse and spectacular beauty.

Beginning early next year, a 4.5-mile-long asphalt trail for in-line skating, walking, bicycling and sightseeing will be blazed through the parks, the first new public access to them since Tropical Storm Agnes devastated the area25 years ago.

At 2,000 acres, the sprawling Gwynns Falls Valley, which twists through the populous Rosemont, Edmondson Village and Wilkens Avenue-Washington Boulevard corridors before joining the harbor, might as well be in a remote outback of the Appalachian Trail.

After decades of debating the sprawling tract's fate, park planners are set to open bids tomorrow for the path, which will be accompanied by several small bridges, parking pads and rest rooms.

They feel this sleeping sylvan preserve will become as well used as Maryland's other popular exercise trails, such as the Northern Central and B&A. They are banking that its dramatic scenery will do the trick. The area includes a waterfall a few blocks from Baltimore Street, a secluded water wheel, and golden poplars and leathery oaks turning hillsides into postcardlike scenery - all a few minutes from such major employment centers as the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

"You can disappear here into a green kingdom set within a metro area of over a million people," said David A.C. Carroll, a Windsor Hills resident whose Prospect Circle home overlooks the park.

By the time the in-line skaters, bikers and hikers discover the Gwynns Falls Trail by April or May, park planners will be trying to extend it southward along its rocky, picturesque stream valley, where stands of goldenrod, dogwood and oak provide West Baltimore residents with a slice of countryside.

If the park is going to enter a new phase, there is precedent. This summer, Leon Day Park, named for the Negro Baseball League Hall of Famer who lived in the Rosemont neighborhood, was christened after a refurbishment. It is a lush meadow ideal for ball games (it was once known as Bloomingdale Oval Park) and outfitted with picnic tables, ball diamonds and barbecue grills.

"The fields are being used. There are times when you have to fight for barbecue space there. I believe that what has happened to this one little bit of the park will happen to the trails," said Betty Hawkins, a Rosedale Street resident.

The very name Leakin Park - one of the component sections of what is called collectively the Gwynns Falls Greenway - has long caused exasperation for park planners, conservation groups and neighborhood leaders.

Their dismay is the product of more than a quarter-century of misfortune - destruction wrought by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972; a controversial highway that threatened to run through the beautiful parklands; and its stigma of being a dumping ground for slaying victims.

These factors have cast a long shadow over this valley, a preserve that follows Philadelphia's Fairmount Park and Portland's Forest Park as the third-largest wilderness park in the country.

After Agnes, the park "simply went back to seed," said Chris Ryer, director of the Baltimore office of the Trust for Public Land, a group that has championed the park's expansion and path construction.

Park denizens say its reputation for danger is a bad rap.

"I walk the park every day, often with my children, and have never been afraid or seen any criminal activity," said Hunting Ridge resident Jon Foley, a state health administrator who is also president of the Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Parks.

Others say the increased park use - through the paths, trail markers and other welcoming amenities - will draw much-needed recreational usage. That activity, they say, will discourage those who drop bodies in what are the park's hidden, desolate corners.

"The Gwynns is different from other open spaces. It is not a basketball court. It is a place to understand and learn about the stewardship of nature," said Marianne Kreitner, a Windsor Hills resident who is president of the Maryland Friends of Olmsted Parks and Landscapes.

"We can teach children about habitat and respect for the environment."

Park planner Ryer believes this Gwynns Falls vision will spread. He sees the Trust for Public Land gradually acquiring some of the old factories and 1950s auto yards that sit adjacent to park lands.

This ribbon of green will contain a pathway threading through railroad spans, around working auto repair yards and under interstate highways. It won't be a manicured park, but a paved route for exercise and personal exploration within a spectacular and varied urban setting.

Farther into the city, he sees the harbor's shoreline sprouting with natural grasses and reeds. He also sees the cove south of the new Ravens stadium free of the plastic jugs and Styrofoam cups that wash down the storm sewers, many of which are carried in ancient sewers buried under parts of the Gwynns Falls.

"Anything is possible. The whole park - from the harbor to the Gwynns headwaters - is about the recovery power of nature," said Ryer.

Pub Date: 10/28/97

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