Friday, January 22, 2016

The Motor House - Investing in Baltimore's Social Capital

In 1914 when the Motor House was built as Ford's first Baltimore auto showroom and mechanics space North Avenue was still the northern border of Baltimore City. Today, North Avenue has become a frontier of another kind: It is ground zero for last year's unrest that began at Penn and North and in the section that is known as Station North it is also ground zero for a new kind of urban renewal, a urban renewal that aims fro protecting safe and affordable space, is not driven by profit and corporations but by non-profits and civic engagement.
Restored to its original splendor: Motor House on North
Avenue (photo: ArchPlan)

Where a few years ago neglect and a cheap motel presided over a McDonalds and boarded up landmarks, we see today a steady stream of investment and none of it deserves the title gentrification.

The Motor House that after a succession of various car brands finally converted to the Lombard Office Furniture Company in the 1970s eventually stood empty and became through Sherwin Mark's selective letter choice on the banner sign out front the Load of Fun, a home for 35 artists and the Single Carrot Theatre. But upon a tip of an anonymous person who may have taken revenge on Sherwin the City inspected the building and found it woefully lacking in many respects that had to do with life safety such means of egress. The 35 artists got evicted and Sherwin went on a fruitless hunt to find the millions needed to bring the building up to snuff.

The usual gentrification story would have been a risk happy developer swooping in because he was sniffing a great future for the newly minted arts and entertainment district supported by the Central Baltimore Partnership and several anchor institutions including the expanding a space hungry MICA. Some unremarkable mixed use building may have come out of such a deal, code compliant and maybe even equipped with a fancy restaurant, enough for Baltimore to declare even that a success.

As Sherwin Mark had been quoted in a 2010 Sun article:
"Station North is at a very precarious point," he says. "It could totally flourish and be wonderful. But for that to happen, it can't be all about developers and city planners and arts administrators. Artists have to have a stake in it. I'm always telling artists that if they don't buy property, they won't have power."
David Mitchell (left) in the new performance space for which
he is Creative Director (Photo: ArchPlan)
But that is not what happened. Instead, an angel investor of a different kind showed up just like a miracle: The Deutsch Foundation through their Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation (BARCO) bought the building and funded a $6.5 million renovation which included the use of competitive historic State tax credits. According to the Foundations Chief Operating Officer Neil Didriksen Dr. Deutsch had made his fortune in risk taking and innovation and that this was also the focus on the foundation by providing "affordable, safe and state of the art" space for artists and creatives. A precedent for Motor House was found in Providence, RI where BARCO learned useful lessons for the project. Frank Lucas is the architect of record, Southway Builders was the general contractor and Amy Bonitz the development consultant. Cross Street  Partners provided know how in financial reporting.  Individual artists contributed elements such as the elevator shaft clad in license plates.

BARCO is also investing in the new maker space Open Works on the eastern edge of Station North led by Will Holman of BARCO. Didriksen says that after the initial aid in getting projects off the ground, they then have to stand on their own feet and that Motor House will do just that.
Arts project license plates in the lobby of Motor House (Photo: ArchPlan)

Now complete, the Motor House continues Sherwin Mark's vision with non-profit offices on the third floor which share a conference room, a kitchen. Non-profits pay an all inclusive $16 of rent per square-foot. The France Merrick Foundation, foreseeing that non-profits would line up with requests for support to move into this space, instead funded the shared conference room. Deutsch has an office here, the Neighborhood Design Center moved in and so did the Station North management under Ben Stone. All offices are leased.

The second floor consists of artist spaces of various sizes, one of them designed as a share space for start ups. Most spaces are already occupied, some by artists returning to the building for almost the same rent they paid before. Artists also enjoy shared facilities, one of them the converted auto elevator which became floor space.
The former LOAD OF FUN gallery space
is waiting for a restaurant tenant (Photo: ArchPlan)

The first floor could still accommodate a restaurant in the space that was Sherwin Mark's gallery. What used to be a rickety performance space of the Single Carrot Theater (since relocated to Parts and Labor further north in Remington) has matured into a well equipped small theater space. It still is without a permanent performance troupe, though. Artistic Director David Mitchell will see to it that the space will be used, starting as a permanent jazz venue and gradually with more uses "based on community needs" as Mitchell emphasizes.

Judging from Jubilee's Center Theater renovation (and their City Arts building), Mike Shecter's North Avenue Market (with the Windup Space, Liam Flynn and Red Emma's bookstore), MICA's Fred Lazarus Center on North Avenue, the newly relocated Joe Squared Pizza restaurant and performance space and the planned Parkway renovation for the Maryland Film Festival Station North is on a path that defies the usual stereotypes of gentrification by offering permanent affordable spaces for the arts. It doesn't look like the improvements on this part of the North Avenue frontier will kick its pioneers out any time soon.  If all goes as planned, it could even become a hotbed of workforce development and the renewal of social capital. That is also what will be needed in what is now dubbed "Innovation Village" in the miles of North Avenue to the west of Station North were renewal is still a dream.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

the Motor House combines new code compliant elements with restoration of historic details (all photos ArchPlan)

a full fledged theater space open for community suggestions

the view from the back to the front towards the first floor lobby

Will Holmann explains the Open Works which will be BARCO's next project

The old skylights are carefully restored and even feature double glazing now.

The third floor shared kitchen is located in the old car elevator


Knowledge aquisition and training is part of  Station North's agenda

a third floor oofice space looks out to the also renovated Fred Lazurus Center of MICA


Looking out on North Avenue is no longer a bleak affair in this block

Second floor artist space

Third floor non profit tenants

Third floor non profit tenants

Third floor non profit tenants

Third floor non profit tenants

Third floor non profit tenants

Jazz in the new performance space

Architectural floor plans (Frank Lucas Architect)