Serene city park a battleground

Sparks fly over history, access for disabled in Washington Monument's green space


The serene and picturesque park that surrounds Mount Vernon's Washington Monument has become a battleground as those who favor preserving it exactly and those who want it more accessible to the disabled fight over rehabilitation plans.

Officials with Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks say that the park, four separate squares of green that radiate from the monument, must be made more inviting to those in wheelchairs or who are otherwise impaired.

In the northernmost piece, they plan to replace steps into the park with a sloping ramp.

Yet preservationists say work that extreme would desecrate space designed more than a century ago. Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation vowed yesterday to halt work on the park unless the commission is given a say on the plans - something parks officials have no intention of doing.

"This is upsetting to the neighborhood, and it's upsetting to us," said Judith Miller, the historic commission's chairwoman. "I am prepared, frankly, to ask for a stop-work order if we must. It is unconscionable that they are going to move forward without us."

Parks officials brought plans for the Mount Vernon Place rehab before the historic commission two years ago. While the commission granted the project preliminary approval, Miller said, the board never bestowed its final blessing.

Connie A. Brown, acting director of recreation and parks, said the approval was not conditional. The city's law department, he added, assures him the rehab needs no further CHAP guidance.

"Citizens who are physically challenged have the same rights as the rest of us," Brown said. "We need to have the decency to provide an accommodating, equal experience for all of our citizens."

Not exempt

The Americans with Disabilities Act, approved in 1990, requires, among other things, that public spaces be accessible to people with disabilities. Historic properties are not exempt.

With the act in mind, over the past decade the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars retrofitting public parks. Carroll, Druid Hill and Patterson parks, as well as the Cylburn Arboretum, all historic to some degree, have had repairs on entranceways, bathrooms and grounds, with more work possibly to come because of litigation.

Knowing the background of Mount Vernon Place, a story that dates to 1809 when the monument was built, the city hired a landscape architect who specializes in historically sensitive work.

Patricia O'Donnell said her mission was a tricky balancing act between history and modern law. Though the federal government offers reams of ADA guidelines and is equally overrun with preservation rules, the two do not merge gracefully.

"As a professional, you just have to make a judgment and put forth an opinion to maintain the intent," she says. "It's not easy."

O'Donnell, of Vermont-based Heritage Landscapes, calls her plan to build the slope "a very good balance of the multiple values."

The preservation-oriented Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association has some other choice words for the plan.

In a recent letter to the mayor, the group's president called the city's park plan "a mistake of national proportions."

"This is a priceless and architecturally irreplaceable property - one Rec. and Parks will devalue ... if it moves one single bulldozer onto the property without a plan that respects the historic value of the parks."

Lance Humphries, chairman of the neighborhood association's property stewardship committee, can't believe such changes would be allowed in a historic district where everything down to the color of doors is regulated.

"It's disturbing," he said, "that they're using such an aggressive means to accomplish something here."

Though Humphries said the city could achieve accessibility in any number of less-drastic ways, Brown said he has heard no viable suggestions.

"They had no doable alternatives except telling the people who are ADA-challenged to fend for themselves," Brown said. "They didn't say that literally, but that was the message."


That this is even up for discussion angers Lawrence Hawkins, a paraplegic who helps people with disabilities buy homes through the organization Making Choices for Independent Living.

The park may be historic, he says, but it is a design that keeps him and other disabled Baltimore residents from enjoying it.

"So they want to preserve something so that you can't let someone take advantage of it?" he said. "I should not have the same advantage as you looking at this? I can't believe that."

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