Parks plan set to bloom

Vision: Baltimore's new recreation director is quietly working to reinvigorate the city's green spaces.

April 20, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Standing in Druid Hill Park's sunlit glass conservatory, radiant with tulips and fragrant with hyacinths, Baltimore's new recreation and parks director notices a cracked pane.

"I'll make a note of that," says Marvin F. Billups Jr., 59, the man people are counting on to craft a clear vision for the city's leisure grounds.

As one of the least-known members of Mayor Martin O'Malley's Cabinet, the Athens, Ga., native says he'll be fixing the small flaws and filling the tall orders, including reinvigorating a starchy department. Even Billups, an affable optimist, says, "A lot of things were standing still."

Since his swearing-in last fall, Billups has been walking the city's park system and preparing to make public moves this spring.

A lot of what he plans will be supplemented by new funding. This week, the state Board of Public Works approved $4.3 million for 10 city park projects through the state's Program Open Space.

Some of the projects are under way, and most should be complete within a year, agency officials said.

In the months ahead, Billups plans to apply for another state initiative on community parks and playgrounds that is expected to yield $8.5 million.

In addition, ground maintenance and forestry services are due to return to his department, where they were until four years ago. He expects that to bring next year's operating budget up to about $17 million, subject to the City Council's approving the mayor's budget. This year's operating budget is $20.7 million.

"An official transfer [of departments] is to take place by July," Billups says of the moves greeted by parks advocates who had pressed for the changes. "I'm excited, I believe we will get the job done. The logic is there, bringing them back."

Rather than simply cut grass, he said, his workers will be able to carry out tree and ground care with an eye toward quality of park life.

Plans for the Open Space funds include restarting the waterworks at Patterson Park's marble fountain; resurfacing Carroll Park's tennis and basketball courts; and reopening a field house there.

"We have fountains. They do something for people. Let's pay more attention," he says, noting that not every city has graceful statue fountains like Baltimore's.

If the department secures the $8.5 million in state funds, $5 million in local funds and state grants will be used to renovate nearly 50 dilapidated playgrounds near schools and bring them up to safety standards - with lead-free paint and softer rubber surfaces - by year's end.

That's supposed to be the first phase in an "aggressive schedule," which calls for rehabilitating the city's more than 200 playgrounds within four years, Billups says.

Even the 1888 glass Palm House in Druid Hill Park is subject to change, he says. Brimming with spring flowers, the park system's crown jewel is scheduled for expansion in the late summer, he says, adding two support wings and outside plantings. "You can imagine how stunning that will be," he says.

Some applaud such small fixes but urge Billups to go further. "Let's have an educational center so we can add horticultural programming in our public schools," suggests Peggy Stansbury, chair of the Baltimore Conservatory Association Inc. Billups says a separate structure for education might eventually be built.

Other improvements to Druid Hill Park's 744 acres will be better signs, especially to the Baltimore Zoo, Billups says. Most or all capital improvement projects will be overseen by Gennady Schwartz, an experienced department hand, a sign that Billups is working with the staff he inherited.

Another department official who served under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, spokeswoman Annette Stenhouse, says Billups has energized employees with his "absolutely real" passion for enlivening the 5,700-acre park system.

A sensitive labor relations issue, which Billups promises to address, is having staff members work on Saturdays, when many residents would like to have more than 15 city recreation centers open.

This summer, he says, the recreation program will add offerings including junior golf, lacrosse and karate. His creation, the Family Fun and Fitness Festival in Druid Hill Park on May 5, will be held around the reservoir, one of the city's best-known open spaces, which he would like to see animated by activity.

Since his appointment nine months ago, Billups has been riding the coattails of the popular mayor, and now he's benefiting from a state surplus.

This week, O'Malley and Billups went to Carroll Park, where they talked of ways to connect the park with the nearby B&O Railroad Museum for the 175th birthday celebration of the B&O Railroad next year.

If there is a city Billups would like Baltimore to emulate when it comes to parks and recreation, it's Chicago, known for its lively summer festivities and fireworks. Less well-known is its dedicated parks tax, which Billups can only wish for. Since he and his wife moved from Prince George's County to a city-owned house in Clifton Park, Hilltop House, Billups has spent Saturdays touring parks with citizen groups. "It allows me to see the park through their eyes," he says.

This quiet outreach won him high marks from Sandra Sparks, chair of the Baltimore Alliance for Great Urban Parks. "We've waited a long time for vision," she says.

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