Lee Park footbridge closed

City shuts span after inspector finds structural flaws

July 23, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore officials closed a footbridge at Robert E. Lee Park yesterday, shutting a passageway to one of the city's most popular dog-walking areas.

An independent contractor recently completed a structural assessment of the bridge and identified several areas of concern. Although the park is in Baltimore County, it is owned by the city. It sits north of Mount Washington, adjacent to Lake Roland near Falls Road and Lakeside Drive.

Word of the bridge's closure spread throughout the park by late evening, as dozens of dog walkers were forced to brainstorm future plans. On weekends, hundreds of people walk across the bridge, those who frequent the park say.

Atman Smith walked his dog across the bridge for what he said would be the last time in a while. The West Baltimore resident comes out a couple of times a week and will now have to adjust his schedule, which might include finding a different park.

Smith said he will miss the relationships he has developed with the other dog owners.

"It's a very beautiful place in Baltimore. Not too many places like this," said Smith, who is the director of Holistic Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches children yoga. "The waterfall, the lake. And you meet diverse people up here. Everybody knows everybody, and it's cool. I've made really good friends up here."

A Baltimore County spokesman, Donald I. Mohler, said that the county hired a company called URS Corp. that studied the bridge and prepared the report. The city closed the bridge after receiving the county's report, Mohler said.

The report "was done as part of the ongoing discussions between the city and the county in terms of the future. Now where the discussions will move to is how we get that bridge rebuilt as quickly as possible," he said.

Mohler later added, "I think everybody realizes that we need to get that bridge working."

The report said the structure received a recent rating of 3 out of a possible 9 according to National Bridge Inspection Standards, which translated into deterioration that has seriously affected primary structural components. The report highlights worn concrete on the underside of the deck slabs.

There is no estimate on how much it will cost to fix the bridge, and it is not clear which government - city or county - will pay, according to Mohler.

Kia McCleod, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Recreation and Parks, said there is no timetable for when the bridge will reopen. She also said that all other areas of the park will remain accessible. The park can be entered from Falls Road, though that's miles from the main dog-walking area.

In early 2004, the bridge was closed for $1.2 million worth of repairs, although many of the dog owners ignored the closure. The city welded steel bars onto the fence so that people couldn't get through, but one woman tried to get in and got stuck, while other owners climbed around the ends of the fence clutching their dogs, risking a fall.

That year, the southeastern corner of the park was also closed to remove soil contaminated by dogs.

It's easy to see why dog owners would go to such extremes to gain access to the park, its fans say.

Dean Davili, with his dog and family by his side, called Robert E. Lee Park the best in the area. Davili brought his mother and two other relatives to the park yesterday, hours after they had landed from out of town.

"It's a Baltimore tradition," the Johns Hopkins physician said.

Devorah Werdesheim, while walking her dog Bella, said she will consider entering the park through Falls Road. She acknowledged that might add at least two miles to her normal hike - something that might dissuade other dog owners.

And without the fellowship of other dogs, Bella stands to be the one most affected, Werdesheim said.

"It puts a crimp in her social life," she said. "She's very well socialized because of the park. She doesn't attack other dogs or people."

The bridge, meanwhile, held up just fine as one of the city's trucks passed over it.

"I've seen police officers drive over that bridge, although I couldn't imagine taking a car over that thing," said Bill Cress of Towson, as he walked his two dogs, Tegan and Hank. "I know I've never thought twice about crossing it."

The park boasts 450 acres of wilderness, with dozens of hiking and jogging trails. An Internet site devoted to dog owners recently rated it the best park in the Baltimore area.

Lake Roland, a former city reservoir, is a popular spot for dogs to swim. And trees shade the park.

Those are reasons Alex Shchetinkin has come to the park for years with his dog Jack, especially when temperatures reach the 90s, as was the case yesterday.

"He just gets in the water and is on his own," Shchetinkin said. "And it's shaded. Cool for the dog, and cool for me."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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