It’s not everyday that an established Baltimore City park with a rich history grows.

But that’s exactly what’s happening at Riverside Park in South Baltimore, where the city’s acquisition of land once owned by CSX has cleared the way for an expansion of one of its oldest parks.

The project focuses on redesigning and upgrading the park’s athletic fields and courts and adding a pickleball court. Crews have been working on the project for nine months and expect to finish work in September.

When completed, the revamped 17-acre park will include a multipurpose field, a new softball diamond with regulation-sized walls in right field, a new basketball court and a new pickleball court. It will also feature a new drainage system and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant walkways to allow anyone to access the multiple fields on the premises.

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Sign at Riverside Park in South Baltimore shows plans for expanded athletic fields at the 17-acre park. (David Lance)

Residents in the Riverside community offered input on the planned changes to the 150-year-old park, sharing suggestions with a planning committee made up of city officials and other stakeholders.

“The ideas were centered around conversations we had with the community and Friends of Riverside Park,” said Adam Boarman, chief of capital development and planning for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. “Our goal these days is to make sure everything is regulation-size and meets all athletic parameters.”

The project was funded through a capital improvement program, as well as local and state grants, including from Program Open Space.

The expansion was made possible by the city parks department’s purchase of a triangular piece of land at the park’s southern edge from CSX Transportation for $300,000. The railroad company, which operates in the eastern United States, recently announced plans to close a nearby rail yard.

Planning for the project dates back to 2010 and is being done in phases. The South Baltimore Gateway Partnership paid for recent repairs to the park’s iconic gazebo, something the parks department did not have funding to complete. The project included roof and base repairs and painting.

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“The renovation itself was something that the community had been championing for a long time, along with our council person, Councilman [Eric] Costello,” said Liz Cornish, enhanced services director for the partnership.

“We just hope that the Riverside Gazebo pays homage to the historic nature of the park and what the park stands for, and then provides what the neighborhood deserves, which is a beautiful restored place to gather,” Cornish said.

Riverside Park has a rich history. During the War of 1812, the site, which offered panoramic views of the Patapsco River and the South Baltimore peninsula, was known as Fort Lookout.

“During the War of 1812, Major General Samuel Smith ordered Captain Samuel Babcock to build a circular battery here called Fort Lookout,” according to a park history by the Riverside Neighborhood Association. “Commanded by Lt. George Budd during the Battle of Baltimore, the battery played a key role in the defense of the city on the night of September 13th into the early morning of September 14th, 1814. Combined with the garrisons at Forts Covington and Babcock, the forces at Fort Lookout assisted in repelling a British attempt to assault the peninsula by land, saving the city.”

The city of Baltimore approved turning three acres of the old fort into Battery Square in 1854, then tacked on 14 more acres in 1873 to create Riverside Park. In the late 19th century, the park had a huge marble fountain stocked with goldfish, two pavilions and wrought-iron fencing around its boundary.

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In the early 20th century, a cannon memorial was added while the fountain was replaced by a swimming pool, according to a 2007 report declaring the park as a historic landmark. The park was renamed Leone-Riverside Park in 1976 in honor of Councilman Dominic Leone Jr. Today, the gazebo and Victorian-style entrances and walkways continue to give the park an old-timey feel.

Vintage postcard shows how the Riverside Park gazebo looked in the early days, when large crowds would pack into the park for concerts and other gatherings. (Baltimore City Recreation and Parks)
The South Baltimore Gateway Partnership funded recent renovations at Riverside Park's iconic gazebo. (South Baltimore Gateway Partnership)

Despite the ongoing construction, three-fourths of the park remains open to the public and none of its main amenities has been closed.

According to Kevin Nash, a spokesman for the parks department, the pool will remain open and the grounds are still available to families and children alike.

Residents of neighboring communities are eagerly awaiting completion of work and the chance to use the new and improved facilities, which include a pickleball court.

“The park is an asset to the entire city, but we in Riverside think of it as our front yard and take care of it accordingly,” said Rich Badmington, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association.

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“It will be great to have well-maintained fields right here so we’re not forced to go to Latrobe [Park] or to other places to take advantage of it,” Badmington said.

Once the current work is done, crews will focus on a poolhouse adjacent to the fields, including bathrooms, storage and meeting rooms. New lighting will also be added to surround the newly finished ball fields

David is from Laurel, Maryland and a recent graduate of Morgan State University. He has previously worked for WEAA 88.9, The Afro-American, and the Maryland State Senate among others. David enjoys telling the stories of those who are unable to tell their own, and seeks to bring issues to light that are prevalent in the surrounding communities.

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