Remaking Smallwood

Anne Arundel undertakes a $1 million cleanup of a neglected city-owned park on the Patapsco

March 26, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

The teardrop-shaped median at the entrance has been wiped away, as have the concession building's yellowed flakes of lead paint, the littered drug paraphernalia and the rusted remnants of a playground set left to rot in the Patapsco River.

Fort Smallwood Park, the 100-acre point in northeastern Anne Arundel County that Baltimore long ago forgot, is no longer a gloomy sight, even under gray, blustery skies.

The 1890s fort has undergone a two-month cleanup since Anne Arundel County effectively took control of the 78-year-old park from the city in January. On Friday, area residents will get to see what a little attention and a million dollars have done to the once-neglected waterfront treasure when County Executive Janet S. Owens and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley celebrate the park's formal reopening.

Work crews are busy filling in the grounds with new landscaping and placing signs throughout the park, the finishing touches to the initial phase of what will be a multimillion-dollar, multiyear project.

But to the people who know the park, Fort Smallwood is at its freshest and cleanest in memory.

Two hundred dead and dying trees have been cleared. Dozens of new parking spaces and hundreds of feet of chain-link fence have been added; the grounds around the lone standing battery, built about the time of the Spanish-American War, have been sodded; nearly all of the lead paint has been removed; and the teardrop-shaped median at the entrance - once a popular starting point for drag racers on Route 173 - is gone.

"It's a lot cleaner," said Calvin Orvis, an Essex resident who spent Thursday watching birds fly over Fort Smallwood, as he has done for a decade. "It's a big change."

John Marshall, the county chief of park operations, who is overseeing the Fort Smallwood facelift, came across an angler who found his way into the park. Before getting into his car to leave, the man told Marshall: "Whatever you guys are doing, it looks great."

Others couldn't wait to get a peek for themselves.

Owens, a Democrat, and County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican who represents the area around Fort Smallwood, went on separate tours last week.

Each came away impressed.

"What they have done in such a short period of time was dramatic," Owens said of the efforts of the county's Recreation and Parks and Public Works departments. "They did so much more than I thought was possible."

The park has been owned by Baltimore since the federal government turned over the property, once part of the city's harbor defense system, in 1927. A popular site for birdwatchers, anglers and sightseers, the park at the mouth of the Patapsco River offers panoramic views of Baltimore's skyline and the Chesapeake Bay.

But the park had fallen into decay in recent decades, and surrounding residents criticized city officials for failing to properly maintain it.

After nearly 40 years of overtures by Anne Arundel County to take control of the park, the city, under O'Malley, relented last year. The two sides settled on a 45-year licensing agreement, with a 30-year option, that allows Anne Arundel to oversee daily operations and police the site. The city remains the owner, and both parties are coordinating the improvements, although the county will take over most of the future repair costs.

Anne Arundel has spent most of the $1 million set aside in its current budget for renovations.

Last week, the County Council approved emergency legislation that will fund full-time personnel to oversee the park, which will open Saturday.

This spring, county officials will begin developing a combined master plan for Fort Smallwood and 232 acres of waterfront parkland - donated by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation - a quarter-mile away.

This summer, the city is expected to rebuild a fishing pier that was destroyed by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

Owens said there will be money in the budget for the next fiscal year for further renovations at Fort Smallwood, which could include repairs of a concrete seawall and the reconstruction of an earthen hill around the battery. In the meantime, the park has no running water and no swimming will be allowed, Marshall said.

The master plan, according to parks officials, will serve as a guide for spending priorities. Dillon said the two facilities could have linking trails for hiking and biking, new concession stands and water activities.

"The sky's the limit," he said.

Workers are busy installing horseshoe pits and volleyball courts to complement the existing basketball courts. Picnic tables and benches have also popped up. A pavilion made of cedar tree trunks and branches will be repaired using sections of existing trees on the grounds.

Anne Arundel wants to install a playground by June, to replace two rusted play sets laden with lead paint that were dismantled by the city last year. Pieces from one of those demolished sites were found on the beach last fall, and Marshall said last week they were recently removed.

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