Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Seawall changes Remington

Rarely has one community seen so much change coming from one single developer as in the case of Remington. "Seawall has become the byword for new and change", says Ryan Flanigan, president of the Greater Remington Improvement Assciation (GRIA).
Warehouse with bay-windows, Remington Row:
Design HCM (photo: K. Philipsen)

Not that Remington had been an unseen, dormant frog waiting for the kiss from a prince. Investors and the community itself could long see how being located east of flourishing Hampden, South of the Hopkins University campus, west of the ambitious Charles Village and Old Goucher Districts and north of the upstart Station North had all the right seeds for a revival. Remington was thus already the stage for epic battles, most notably the battle against Walmart that split the community and resulted in the the retail giant  withdrawing its suburban style shopping center, desired by some for convenient affordable shopping and hated by others for its corporate image as main street retail killer. It is not entirely clear which neighborhood fertilizes which, but Remington had always had been the most diverse and probably also the poorest of the cluster of communities comprise of Medfield, Woodberry, Hampden and Remington.

But one thing is beyond doubt: Seawall Development headed by the boyish energy bundle Thibault Mannekin and his father Donald, both offspring of a well known Baltimore real estate family, has taken the locational advantages to the next level. It is possible that after Walmart Seawall looked like a savior around which a divided community could rally. Whatever psychology may have played a role, Seawall today has had only a few detractors in spite of its massive investments in the area that clearly bring to mind the unhelpful term of gentrification.
View of Remington

Thibault Manekin is so charming, so energetic and so in tune with best practices from green development to capacity building in the community, that it is hard for anybody to take issue with his approach, especially since Seawall is supporting the community when it comes to modifying the zoning code to allow corner stores or to founding a Community Land Trust (CLT) to ensure affordable housing is not a thing of the past with Seawall pushing the market up. Donald Manekin says: “My father ran a business based on relationships and not transactions, and I think that filtered down between me, Thibault, and those who are part of Seawall.”

The way Thibault tells the story, it goes like this: Seawalls investments in Remington began with the renovation of Millers Court, an eyesore of a vacant commercial building that had sat unused for years except for the occasional squatters. Seawall met with the community with an idea in mind that hadn't been done anywhere else before. It was based on combining housing with education.  The Manekins had the insight that Baltimore City cycled north of 800 new teachers through their system annually, that qualified teachers where a key requisite for quality education, keeping them in town even more so and, most importantly, that teachers were highly stressed when they came to a new city and had to deal with a new job, a new system and curriculum and a new city all at once. Thibault figured that people make poor choices in such situations and may pick homes either too far away from where their school and students were or blindly moving into communities where they were at risk because of high crime. So he wanted to provide Baltimore City teachers with an affordable home and resource center. His concepts was initially much smaller than Millers Court, but once that building had been brought to his attention, he adjusted the size of his dream, took the risk and jumped into the opportunity.
Thibault Mannekin

 The community wanted a coffee shop, so it was added to the program. Charmingtons in short order advanced to being the only coffee shop in Baltimore where no other than the President of the United States of America barged in one morning last year.

The teachers considered Millers Court a wonderful space, where they not only found their colleagues, copy machines, resources and a coffee shop, they also liked Remington. The shops on 25th Street, nearby Hopkins, hopping Station North, the direct access to I-83, all what made Remington a good location in the first place.

“The ambiance in this neighborhood has changed from [people] fearful of walking their dogs around the block, to this real sense of community. It’s exceeded any of our expectations,” (Doanld Manekin)
Millers Court with Cafe Charmington

But once teachers liked Baltimore and settled, they aspired to more than a rented affordable apartment. They wanted to own a house. Seawall heard the request. They had never done a rowhouse rehab but went ahead and bought all 30 vacant rowhouses that someone had put on a list for them, all in Remington. They fixed one up as a model and conducted an open house, just on word of mouth to see if these houses would really be in demand. Well, they didn't have to worry for too long, 300 people showed up for the open house and all 30 houses had signed up buyers within a couple of hours. Seawall doubled down in Remington with Parts and Labor, a combo of a theater, a butcher shop and a restaurant all derived from an abandoned car repair shop. That was cutting edge stuff of the kind one could maybe find in Denver or Austin. It provided the Single Carrot Theatre troop with a affordable digs but otherwise is way above the pay-scale of teachers or most working stiffs, a true gentrification symbol. Next Seawall did Remington Row, 100 market rate apartments in a newly constructed fake warehouse, a project that will have an open house at the end of this month.
Social Investments: Thibault Manekin explains his company
strategy to law stduents at UB (photo K Philipsen)

After this there will be a food hall dubbed R-House. Once again a cutting edge concept of the sharing economy, an incubator startup or maker space for chefs where aspiring restaurateurs can find a shell ready for the final touches allowing an easier path to preparing delicious foods.

Do these latest steps by Seawall mean that the company has fallen off the wagon of doing well by doing good? That they should have stayed with affordable housing projects for teachers marching from Remington to Woodberry (where they did Union Mill) and from there to Park Heights and eventually to Sandtown?  Does it mean that Remington will be sacrificed on the altar of yuppification?

From the perspective of the divided Baltimore the answer isn't an easy one and many may ask how it helps to have more upscale facilities. 

From the perspective of a development company it is logical what Seawall does.  Seawall is building the value of its cheaply bought assets and then fueling the proceeds into new projects. It follows such an investment strategy that later investments in the same geographic area would start on a higher plateau and ergo would need to achieve higher yields, precisely what Seawall has been doing. It looks like Seawall isn't done yet with Remington. The large Anderson auto complex once planned for Walmart is now owned by Seawall, plans need to still be made.  They also bought a warehouse on Sisson Street and still appear to be looking for more. Clearly, a safe and stable Remington that is attracting new residents while keeping the old is better for Baltimore than one one that could have fallen off the cliff.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA   updated 4-26 with correction of the concept of R-House

SUN about Remington Row

The below show various views of Remington as seen form the apartments in Remington Row. All photos ArchPlan Inc., K. Philipsen)