Gwynns Falls Parkway is a strikingly “green” road that connects Baltimore’s two biggest parks, Druid Hill and Leakin.
Down its center runs a wide grassy median whose mature trees block out most of the hot summer sun, a feature that amounts to a rarity in crowded and concrete-bound West Baltimore.
Equally noticeable along the two-mile-long roadway are the “NO BIKE LANES” signs that flap in the breeze from rowhouse porches and front lawns.
They’re placed in opposition to the Greenway Trail Network, an ambitious plan to connect historically fragmented neighborhoods through recreational park space. The plan proposes constructing more than six miles of trail along Gwynns Falls Parkway and 33rd Street to connect with existing trails at Herring Run, Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls.
“We’re not against bike lanes. We’re against bike lanes where they make no sense and where they want to come and uproot a community that didn’t ask for it, don’t need it, and don’t want it,” said Mary Hughes, president of Friends of Gwynns Falls Parkway.
According to Hughes, when the city first approached the community about the project about five years ago, it was presented as a “done deal” – a trail in the middle of the median.
“They are supposed to have community engagement upfront. Instead, they put us at the back of the bus,” Hughes said. “They brought everything to us and said this is the way we look at it, this is the way we want it done.”
Jed Weeks, interim director of the bike advocacy group Bikemore, disagrees, saying the pushback is coming from a vocal but small group.
“I’ve heard from the same half-dozen to a dozen people in every community meeting over and over again that they oppose this project. And I’ve heard from many more people who support it,” Weeks said.
“This is really an incredible opportunity for the Baltimore community,” Matthew Hendrickson, a city project manager, added at a community meeting last year.
Sneaking in a Bike Lane?
Originally spearheaded by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the project was handed off to the Baltimore Department of Transportation (DOT). This summer, the agency was expected to address the critical question of whether the trail would run down the median, alongside it, or somewhere else altogether.
Instead, at the June 26 meeting of the Hanlon Improvement Association, residents claim DOT presented a plan to resurface part of the parkway, turning the westbound section of the street from two lanes into one, with a buffer zone alongside the side. This was the first time residents had heard of the plan.
“This is not a resurfacing. This is a major transportation redesign,” said Linda Batts, a longtime resident of the Hanlon-Longwood neighborhood. “Their buffer zone is a euphemism for a bike lane.”
Batts said that DOT justified the lane reductions by pointing out a “five-foot difference” in width between the east and westbound lanes of the parkway. On such a busy street, residents worry such changes could drastically impact traffic flow as well as limit parking along the street.
“When people are coming home during prime time, it’s going to be too congested to even think about one lane,” said Larry Jones, who has lived along the parkway for over 25 years.
Asked about the resurfacing proposal, DOT’s press office did not respond.
Advocates of the Greenway bike network see many positive outcomes to communities, especially those traditionally marginalized by city policies.
“Trails can be powerful economic catalysts. When you’re on a trail, you’re going to pass directly by local businesses. And so you’re a lot more likely to patronize them. Or small business owners might see an opportunity to start a new business because the trail is right there,” said Kate Foster, mid-Atlantic director of trail development at Rails-to-Trails.
The 10-12-foot wide pathway, together with landscaping, benches and other amenities, will benefit more than cyclists.
“I think it’s important that people understand that this is a greenway, and you’ll see more people walking, exercising and enjoying the green space than biking,” Hendrickson, the DOT project manager, added.
“This is a greenway, and you’ll see more people walking, exercising and enjoying the green space than biking,” DOT project manager.
According to a 2020 Rails-to-Trails report, the overall 35-mile Greenway Trails network, which includes the completed Jones Falls Trail, Herring Run Trail, Gwynns Falls Trail and Harbor Trail, could create up to $48 million in construction job growth and increase the value of properties near the trails by an aggregate of $314 million.
There are also the social and emotional benefits of more active recreational space and improved connectivity among city neighborhoods, the report says. The positive impact especially applies to residents without access to a car, who make up about a third of the residents living along the Gwynns Falls corridor.
That prospect is intriguing to Arica Gonzalez, a resident of the Panway neighborhood and founder of The Urban Oasis.
“We see all the amenities that are close by but not quite accessible because there’s such limited walkability in our community,” Gonzalez said. “For us, the trail would be a great way to feel connected to the community and to feel like we were really a part of all the development taking place around us.”
At Urban Oasis, Gonzalez has seen the benefits of revitalized green space in a community. She points to East Baltimore’s Library Square, which now boasts historical plaques and rain gardens, as an example of the parkway’s potential.
“All too often, when it comes to minority communities, developers come and think mowing the grass is the best we deserve as communities,” she says. “I would like to challenge our communities to think more highly of ourselves.”
An Olmsted Corridor
Another complicating factor to the proposed development is the historical value of the median.
Both the Gwynns Falls Parkway and 33rd Street were designed in 1904 as part of the Olmsted Brothers’ plan for an urban park system in Baltimore. In 2015, the Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation (CHAP) gave landmark status to the medians.
The Olmsteds originally envisioned Gwynns Falls Parkway as a 200-foot-wide corridor with a 50-foot-wide main road flanked by green space and walking lanes. After cars became more prevalent, the route was redesigned to be 120-feet wide, with the east and west traffic lanes separated by a grassy median.
DOT officials have cited the original Olmsted Plan as their inspiration for planning the trail. To Althea Reynolds, the lanes would detract from the aesthetic value of a neighborhood she has lived in since the 1970s.
“This has always been a beautiful neighborhood. In the springtime, the trees hook together, and it’s like you’re going through a tunnel.”
“They’re not doing it for the people in the neighborhood. They’re doing it for someone else that they hope will come” – Lawrence Bell.
She notes that while a trail may be feasible in other parts of the city, she doesn’t think residents in her community would get the most use out of it.
“This neighborhood is a lot of older folks. There’s not a whole lot of young people here. And they just want it like it is,” she said.
Lawrence Bell III, a former City Council president whose family has lived in the area since the 1930s, concurs.
“They’re not doing it for the people in the neighborhood. They’re doing it for someone else that they hope will come and move in after they displace the people already in the community,” Bell said. He advocates for a moratorium on new bike lanes in West Baltimore “at least until the people have decided what they want to do.”
If the city wants to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure, it should start with something that affects most residents’ daily lives, Hughes said.
“Why don’t we have a better bus system? Why don’t we have a better subway and light rail system? You’re doing all this for bike lanes when the majority of the people are not going to be on bikes?” she asked.
Environment of Distrust
According to Weeks, there is “zero plan, zero timeline” for the completion of the Greenway Trails network.
DOT confirms that it has stopped preliminary engineering on the western (Gwynns Falls) portion of the network but says it has completed a “30% design” of a trail along East 33rd Street as well a path between JHU’s Homewood campus and Druid Hill Park.
The agency issued the following statement in response to Brew questions:
DOT and its consultant have completed preliminary engineering plans (known as 30% design) for the northern segments of the Baltimore Greenway Trail Network from Druid Hill Park to Herring Run Park. Preliminary engineering plans for the portion of the trail from Druid Hill Park to Gwynns Falls Park were not completed due to the need for additional analysis and community engagement before deciding on an alignment.
The next phase of the project will include advancing the preliminary engineering plans to the final (100%) design, as well as undertaking additional community engagement and analysis along the portion of the trail between Druid Hill and Gwynns Falls Parks to determine a preferred alignment. DOT anticipates that this work will commence in September/October 2023.
The lack of communication by DOT has frustrated Batts, a former city employee, and others.
“There is a complete environment of distrust,” she said. “We don’t know where the truth lies.”
She and other residents are hosting a meeting with Bikemore and Rails-to-Trails this Thursday (August 10).*
Representatives from DOT and the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission have been invited, but have not yet confirmed whether they will attend.
*UPDATE: Bikemore’s Jed Weeks says his group will not be attending the August 10 meeting because the organizers would not provide them with an agenda or ground rules for the meeting.