Far be it from me to turn into a crotchety old killjoy who lambastes every pocket park I find, but I already did it once a few years ago, for a tidy but neglected little mini-playground in Alexandria, Virginia. Since a bigger, higher-profile, and splashier (literally) play area stands just a few blocks away, my featured mini-playground suffers from almost complete obscurity and non-use. So I’m guilty as charged: in 2022, the mini-playground in Alexandria seemed like a perfect example of a development entity struggling to come up with a viable program for a tiny sliver of residual land after all platting and planning the layout for the adjacent townhomes. More recently, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, I stumbled across what is called Hollywood Gateway Park, which transcends its awkward location through an abundance of ideas.
Unfortunately all my photos are at night, but since this is the dead of winter, it sort of represents the status quo appearance for the next couple months. And even at dusk, the appearance is eye-catching: it’s novel and neat, and nothing nearby can surpass it for landmark status. Anyone driving US Highway 1 (Baltimore Avenue) as it intersects with Edgewood Road is likely to see it, provided he or she has functional peripheral vision and abides the speed limit.
Let’s face it: Hollywood Gateway Park doesn’t have a lot of competition in the immediate area. Hollywood is a 1950s-era neighborhood on the northern edge of College Park, the smallish Maryland city that hosts the state’s flagship university. And Edgewood Road, which bisects Hollywood, terminates at Baltimore Avenue just south of where Baltimore Avenue crosses Interstate 495 with a massive cloverleaf; the Hollywood neighborhood (in the southeast corner of the cloverleaf) is quiet and low-key compared to some of the other quadrants, which include a Best Buy and Home Depot (to the southwest) and an IKEA (to the northwest). Here’s a map, where I have circled Hollywood Gateway Park in purple.
While portions of College Park have striven for improved pedestrianism to accommodate the high concentration of University of Maryland students in the city’s campus core, the majority of the streetscapes capitulate to cars. The expansive Hollywood neighborhood features ranch and tri-level homes, nearly all of which have driveways—a very typical lower-middle class development from the middle of the twentieth century. Virtually all the retail within walking distance of Hollywood belongs to the strip mall variety. While residents along Edgewood Road could feasibly walk to Home Depot or IKEA (in terms of proximity), it’s not easy: they’d have to cross a busy highway or an overpass along streets where crosswalks and sidewalks are inconsistent.
Planners in College Park no doubt conceived Hollywood Gateway Park to address shortcomings in public green space and to buffer the neighborhood from the arterial streets that frame it to the west and north. The landscape architect conceived a shrewd method of integrating multiple uses on a sloped half-acre parcel:
The upper portion of this pavilion, mostly visible and accessible from busy Baltimore Avenue, offers bench seating under generous evening lights, promoting safety and shielding the area from wind through the bamboo screen, which in turn can operate like chimes on a windy day. Here’s a view from inside the shelter:
But the shelter rests along a fairly steep slope, creating justification for a two-story entity. The pavilion’s lower level is clearly visible from the photo below:
This portion is even better shielded from noise and elements, with picnic-style seating within the pavilion’s alcove. Accommodating the slope are stairs, an ADA-compatible ramp, and even a children’s slide, barely visible with flashes of blue amidst the shrubbery on the right side of the photo below:
If Hollywood Gateway Park looks spic-and-span and new, that’s because it is. Conceived throughout the 2010s to maximize utility on a neglected piece of land and completed in fall of 2020, this pocket park strives for innovation and visual appeal. It largely achieved these goals through the City’s partnerships with landscape architect Floura Teeter and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), presumably to strategize the influence of wind on the pavilion’s design. The park features native plants on the slope to stabilize the soil, a green roof atop the pavilion, and a stone rivulet with a rain garden to channel water and avoid runoff.
By almost all metrics, Hollywood Gateway Park looks great, as well it should: it claims a $1 million price tag for a half-acre parcel, which seems a bit steep for a city of 35,000. It’s a gold-filigree sash, adorning what previously was no better than a burlap sack. But what was the pressing need for this pocket park, aside from ameliorating suburban car-choked drabness? The vertically oriented photo offers a clue to its strength and deficiency:
It’s not easily visible, but look in the lower level of the pavilion, to the right of the picnic table, near the back of the alcove behind the trash cans. It’s a shopping cart. In 2024, that’s the telltale symbol of a tool used by a homeless person to push his or her possessions around. I recognize that no two circumstances are the same, and I could be wrong in this specific instance. But it’s a very reasonable guess; after all, why else would a business’s shopping cart be here? Chances are, within the last few days, someone had made a rough night of it in this wind-shielded alcove. Given the tendency for homeless encampments to emerge in the minimally supervised or maintained public land of highway exit ramps, its not surprising that dissolute hitchhikers might stop around this stretch of I-495 overnight.
Better there than exposed to the January Maryland chill. But isn’t it likely this cart offers a hint of what prompted the City to invest so heavily into this neglected half-acre? This southeast corner of Baltimore Avenue and Edgewood Road has a bit of a history. As recently as the fall of 2018, as seen in the archived Google Street View, Hollywood Gateway Park was a big sloped piece of lawn with a private residence next to it. And in fall of 2014, the empty lot featured an architecturally compatible one-story home. At some point in time shortly thereafter, the residents of the home left, the City purchased the property, then demolished the house. It’s difficult for me to determine if the previous homeowners struggled to find a buyer, or if they quickly and easily reached a deal with the City. Regardless, it was a residential lot less than a decade ago. Meanwhile, across the street—the northeast corner of Edgewood and Baltimore—featured an abandoned home amidst the wooded growth, on land that was available for retail use, at least back in October 2014. Since this intersection is immediately adjacent to the massive I-495 cloverleaf, it’s no surprise that these parcels right where Edgewood meets Baltimore (US Highway 1) might be suitable for a higher-intensity use. The abandoned home in the woods got demolished around 2014 as well.
But where does that leave the otherwise quiet Hollywood neighborhood? Any home this close to a busy highway isn’t going to sell for a great deal, so the City probably didn’t pay much to relieve the homeowners of their property. It might have cost more to demolish than the value of the land itself. Hollywood Gateway Park still butts right up against Baltimore Avenue, as seen from the ramp negotiating the slope.
It’s going to take an awful lot to make this pocket park quiet and appealing to people who have a choice to go elsewhere, and I’m not sure a distinctive two-story pavilion is going to cut it. A mom-blogger who lives nearby covered the park about a year after it opened; she acknowledged it was “beautifully landscaped” but that she “wouldn’t go out of [her] way to visit this one again”, and that there isn’t much to it that would appeal to kids—just the single slide.
The bigger predicament that Hollywood Gateway Park has failed to solve—and perhaps has made worse—is the remaining house that survives at the corner of Edgewood Road and 47th Place, visible behind the wooden fence in the photo below:
As indicated by the green region that I circled in purple on the map, most of Hollywood Gateway Park hugs Baltimore Avenue, but a narrow strip links the park to the residential 47th Place. Apparently the City of College Park had to reorganize parcels and subdivide them different to build this connective flagella, which creates a path with direct access to the lower level of the pavilion (no ramp necessary), running behind the house and separating it from an apartment complex immediately south.
If I stand at the southernmost portion of Hollywood Gateway Park and look in a north-northwesterly direction, I can see both the pavilion and the house.
It’s hard to say if this confers a benefit or liability to the homeowner. Since the house to its west got demolished several years ago to build this pocket park, this single-family home is now surrounded on all four sides by public land: a right-of-way to the north (Edgewood Road) and east (47th Place), and Hollywood Gateway Park to the west and south.
The home is an island of private ownership. As of when I took these photos in mid January 2024, the home is clearly fully occupied.
Prior to the investment that created Hollywood Gateway Park, perhaps the empty lot became a popular spot for nuisance behavior: dumping, squatting, even prostitution. As I noted in an article just a few days ago, a public realm that signals its tolerance for low-grade deviant behavior soon invites medium-grade deviant behavior. And, with enough neglect or non-enforcement, it becomes the optimal place to hide a dead body. In defense of the City and the architects/engineers who designed this pocket park, the space still looks great three years after it opened. But it does create an awkward scenario where absolutely everything abutting this single hapless single-family home is public land. At any point in time, a person could walk the outer perimeter of the home’s defined lot and never once meet the legal definition of trespassing
This narrow path previously served as a buffer between the home(s) and the apartment complex to the south. Now it is land that the City openly encourages the public to use, at least from dawn to dusk. This can’t be the privacy the homeowners likely envisioned. And while that telltale shopping cart I espied might be pure coincidence, it signals that, even with the obvious high level of maintenance and care afforded this pocket park, it still serves as an open invitation to people who use it after hours illicitly, for campsite building and sleeping and god-only-knows-what.
Here in College Park I witnessed a smart idea, masterfully executed, that may indeed rescue a half-acre of forgotten land from blight. It’s a welcome contrast from the Alexandria pocket park I referenced before, where the developer tossed in a playground in the absence of any better idea on how to program the land. However, the very investment into Hollywood Gateway Park does not ensure widespread or consistent lawful public use (no matter how eye-catching the pavilion might be)—yet it does signal public ownership, thereby making it harder to exclude people with potential ill-intent. I’m not sanguine about the future of that lone house at the corner of Edgewood Road and 47th Place. It may struggle to find a buyer when the current owner sells, thereby incentivizing the City to purchase it as well, demolish the home, and expand Hollywood Gateway Park into a full acre. Maybe the City can rescue that scraggly neglected forest across the Edgewood Road (immediately south of the cloverleaf), which can’t seem to find a retail developer.
Perhaps what I’m typing here really reflects the City’s long-term intent: incremental park expansion. So long as the City doesn’t expand its public land holdings beyond its means of maintaining them, it can still boast an appealing if underused park amenity. But, using the example of Washington DC to the south, which has more public land than it can manage (and a good chunk of DC’s land is under the care of the National Park Service, rather than DC Parks and Recreation), I imagine a revisit to Hollywood Gateway Park in a few years will prove far more revelatory. If the City continues to keep it looking so good, then bully. But if not, I suspect it will host a lot more unsavory stuff than an empty IKEA cart.