James Corner Field Operations shares new designs for its Reimagine Middle Branch plan

New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm James Corner Field Operations has shared more design details and a slew of new renderings of an ambitious plan to transform South Baltimore’s waterfront.

Double Reinventing the middle branch, the vision serves as a sort of park-dotted connective tissue that melds 19 different neighborhoods together while providing vastly improved public access to more than 11 miles of waterfront along the Middle Fork of the Patapsco River. Many communities in south Baltimore, predominantly black and brown, have been historically cut off from the shoreline, and by establishing a formal network of recreational destinations – parks, pedestrian paths and bridges, fishing piers, playgrounds, etc. – Reimagine Middle Branch activates the long underutilized “backyard” of these neighborhoods. In a statement, Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott described Reimagine Middle Branch as “a key part of our broader strategies to revamp and reinvigorate recreational opportunities and outdoor spaces throughout our city.”

“It’s about providing clean, accessible and modern spaces that show our residents, especially our youth, that they matter,” Scott added. “That we care about them and that we will do everything in our power to provide them with the best possible quality of life.”

Aerial view of Middle Branch Park, an existing park in the Cherry Hill neighborhood that would be expanded and redeveloped as part of the plan. (field operations)
public park space under an elevated highway
Underpass Park will activate the space under I-395 and connect to Solo Gibbs Park and Sharp-Leadenhall. (field operations)

Updated design plans for field operations were first unveiled at a Feb. 24 public meeting hosted by the City of Baltimore, Baltimore South Gateway Partnershipand the Parks and People Foundation. As previously reported by A, Field Operations replaced West 8 on the project in December 2020, five months after the Dutch company, which is headquartered in Baltimore’s sister city Rotterdam, officially pulled out. The previous year, West 8 had won an international competition to develop radical waterfront revitalization, with Field Operations placing second. (A published in-depth interviews with Adriaan Geuze, co-founder and chief design officer of West 8, regarding his company’s exit from the project, and with James Corner following the announcement that his company would take the reins.)

As noted in a March 3 press releasethe updated plan’s recommendations fall within a framework of three guiding principles – protect and connect the shoreline, turn barriers into connections, and strengthen communities with parks and programs – while building on multiple efforts and investments community-building initiatives in South Baltimore neighborhoods that are planned, underway, or completed.

“The plan integrates physical planning with economic development that prioritizes job creation, entrepreneurship and increasing the future earning potential of local residents,” said Brad Rogers, executive director of South Baltimore. Gateway Partnership. “Alongside new developments in public space, we are also focusing on local workforce development and business incubation opportunities, such as green jobs involved in the maintenance and monitoring of restored wetlands, and pop-up markets for local vendors.”

rendering of a pedestrian bridge spanning a creek in baltimore harbor
The east-west pedestrian bridge connecting Westport and Mt. Winans to Port Covington over Ridgley’s Cove (field operations)
Render of kayakers at a launch in a park
The kayakers got in the water at Middle Branch Park Beach. Also needed is the new boathouse and docks. (field operations)

During the public unveiling of the new Reimagine Middle Branch plan in late February, the Field Operations-led design team shared their vision for three so-called “priority project areas.” They are the following:

An extension and a redesign Middle Branch Park. According to the Reimagine Middle Branch plan, the existing 150-acre Middle Branch Park, which runs along the shore of the Patapsco River in the Cherry Hill neighborhood, would benefit from a host of new amenities, including a new boathouse, boat docks, improved navigation and fishing, a playground and a covered outdoor pavilion for gatherings. An expansive social center, which will include a food hall or bustling public market, would replace the existing boathouse in the park.

Additionally, work is currently underway along this particular stretch of shoreline to create a waterfront path lined with a boardwalk. Complete with designated walking and biking lanes, the trail will link the revitalized Middle Branch Park with the $23 million, GWWO Architects-designed Cherry Hill Fitness and Wellness Center to Reedbird Park, a new development in the Westport area and other adjacent waterfront projects.

rendering of people gathering at a fishing pier
Smith Cove fishing piers and wetlands. (field operations)
rendering of a kayaker in a waterfront park
New beach, kayak launch and boat rental facilities at Swann Park. (field operations)

As planned, the park’s Middle Branch Marina would also be redesigned to include educational and recreational programs. (It is currently home to a sizable community of onboard residents.) Just west of Smith Cove Marina, the plan envisions a myriad of new features, including fishing piers, pavilions, a playground based on the nature and restored marshes. As the city explained when unveiling the plan, “Together, these improvements include a regionally significant park connected to neighborhoods south and west of the Central Branch.

A second priority project area focuses on Ridgley Cove, where a vast new marine recreation area, which serves a dual function of green stormwater infrastructure, will be created at the mouth of Gwynns Falls. Merged by a new network of pathways and an east-west pedestrian bridge linking the neighborhoods of Westport and Port Covington, Ridgely Cove as proposed would gain a trio of new parks: Swann Park, which will include, among other things, a public beach and boat ramp reserved for canoes and kayaks; Underpass Park, which would be tucked under Interstate 395 and include a skate park, sports fields, and more. and Black Sox Park, which would be located across the cove from Swann Park, and house a number of recreational activities, including a youth baseball field and marsh trails. The park is named after the Negro League baseball team that was based in South Baltimore from 1916 to 1933.

rendering of a shaded pavilion in a park
Events Pavilion at Middle Branch Park. (field operations)
rendering of a children's playground in a park
A new play area called Hilltop Playground near the boathouse in Middle Branch Park. (field operations)

The third and final priority project area is the Loop trail, a major new pedestrian and cycling route that will connect the new waterfront parks and open spaces proposed as part of the Reimagine Middle Branch plan. In addition to merging these new waterfront amenities and the neighborhoods that border them, the trail would also connect to a number of existing trails, including the Gwynns Falls Trail to the northwest and the BWI and East Coast Greenway trails to the south.

Learn more about Reimagine Middle Branch, including a project timeline, upcoming events, and an overview of the complete project teamcan be found here.

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