Plans for city trail hit bumps in north

More details sought in Mt. Washington

May 14, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

Almost no one in Northwest Baltimore's Mount Washington neighborhood disputes that a hiking and biking trail would be a wonderful amenity in this oasis of urban woodlands and stately homes.

But a simmering battle has emerged in this upscale stretch of the city over just how to carve out a swath of greenway, part of the expansive Jones Falls Trail project that would link the Inner Harbor to city neighborhoods.

The Mount Washington Improvement Association has served as a conduit between city officials and residents during the more than four-year planning process. The trail, which was first planned to run along the light rail line, is now proposed to run across Northern Parkway along an 18-foot-high concrete bridge.

City officials say the process has been a transparent one, in which they have attended community meetings to answer questions and provided ample opportunity for feedback. The association's board is set to vote on the plan tomorrow.

But a growing collection of neighbors feel the association and the city have not adequately informed the community of the plan - particularly the new route of the trail - and say they are being "railroaded" into approving it. They fear the decision could have negative environmental, safety, traffic and quality-of-life implications, says Jeanette Ezzo, a Mount Washington resident. A petition signed by close to 150 residents asks the association to postpone its vote so the project can be more carefully vetted.

"This is a community that really appreciates substantive information and is really thoughtful about its surroundings, and wanting more information to make a thoughtful decision," says Gwynn MacDonald, one of the Mount Washington residents who would like more time to consider the proposal. "It's similar to what you do before surgery, reading everything that is available."

Mac Nachlas, president of the neighborhood association and a member of its 28-member board, cites five meetings dedicated to the issue - three in the past six months in which the city displayed the proposal - and a public comment period that began April 19, as evidence of a strong effort to inform the community.

"I have no opinion," Nachlas says. "My role is to make sure we have a fair and well-informed debate within the community. I believe there has been ample opportunity for everyone to hear about the trail and comment on it."

The proposal is the fifth phase of the Jones Falls Trail, which upon completion would total 10 miles and cost about $8 million.

Under the current proposal, the Mount Washington leg would begin on Cylburn Avenue and travel along the south side of Northern Parkway on an 800-foot-long elevated trail that would cross over Northern Parkway by way of an 18-foot-high bridge, then come down on West Rogers Avenue and proceed onto property belonging to the Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. West Rogers Avenue would be narrowed and the sidewalk widened to 8 feet. The trail would emerge from the woods near the bottom of South Road and the Kelly Avenue bridge.

"There are many details of the design yet to be addressed," says Douglas B. McCoach, director of the city's Department of Planning. "Again, we're trying to get community approval to allow us to proceed with the design. There's going to be a series of meetings where the specific technical issues can be addressed. I think a large number of the community is anxious for us to begin, and we're anxious to begin, so we're looking for that community support.

"So could we be criticized for not having all the details? Yes," McCoach says. "But we don't want to present a plan without having all the community input. We really want community support for this, and we need the community to understand that we want to incorporate their input into the design."

Robert Imhoff, vice president of the hospital, whose campus spans 23 acres, says he has no official opinion on the matter. The city has proposed building a set of special-needs playgrounds for the hospital in exchange for an easement that would allow the trail to cut through part of its campus.

"We're waiting to see how all this pans out," Imhoff says. "Again, this is very much in the planning stage, and nothing's been approved. ... If the neighborhood approves something, and the city, then we would work with those factions to make it happen. Our thing is, nothing's been finalized yet on the hospital's part. The hospital is very noncommittal at this point. ... We want to be good neighbors within the Mount Washington community. We're waiting to see what the neighborhood wants to do."

In sections of the heavily forested area along this part of the proposed trail, the land dips and rises. Some beech, tulip and maple trees are 150 years old. Residents report seeing deer and red foxes peeking out from the brush.

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