Sunday, June 12, 2016

On my way towards understanding the idea of the West Baltimore Innovation Village

Innovation Districts are sprouting in almost all major US cities and it would easy to brush them off as yet another fad in the never ending list of ideas on how to kick-start the US city again which, although buoyed by Millennials flocking to cities, is still in a precarious state as a result of decades of anti-urban federal policies and the rapid de-industrialization of America.
Innovation Village Baltimore

So when in in January of this year at the morning of the Martin Luther King holiday a group announced the West Baltimore Innovation Village the announcement caused interest mostly because anything that dealt with West Baltimore  in the wake of the Aril 2015 unrest caused a stir. Governor Hogan announcing extra money for demolition in West Baltimore was better understood by many Marylanders than how, of all places, West Baltimore should be a center of innovation. After a while the media returned to legal proceedings around the case against the police officers that had arrested Freddie Gray with nary any further mention of the Innovation Village.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake at the Innovation Village announcement
in January: Not a government initiative (SUN photo)

When finally a conversation about the Innovation Village  had been set up at the Windup space, the discussion left more questions open than it answered. There was a lot of rather lofty talk such as that the Innovation District would align the assets and bring collaboration. That it would be looking for public and private sources of funding, that just getting to know each other, was building trust. The potential central West Baltimore has, "the assets are amazing. This isn't about housing, it is about jobs and economic development." The presenters explained that 50% of the jobs we see today won't be there by the mid 2030s but it wasn't clear how that knowledge would help. The presenters said they would want to act as an activator and that the framework for people to plug into was missing. That the mindset needed to be changed and so forth.  One coulkd say that the problems were described, but how change would come was much less clear. Delegate Mary Washington, who attended the presentation at the WindupSpace, told me that Richard May had given a presentation to the legislators and he did a real good job explaining the Innovation Village.

Armed with a set of critical questions I set off to to ask Richard May myself, exclusively for the Community Architect Daily, as it were. Richard May is invariably described as the guy who is leading the effort of the Innovation Village, even if its precise organizational structure  remains shrouded in some degree of mystery. The Village's "fiduciary agent" is the Reservoir Hill Community Development Corporation. Some of its business is apparently conducted out of Michael Cryor's One Baltimore office, located in A&R's Symphony Center. At least that is where my appointment took place. This struck me as a really odd place for anything about innovation, because Symphony Center, although billed as transit oriented development, is not very innovative at all. Its architecture is banal and way too much space is devoted to parking.
Richard May speaks at the announcement in January (SUN photo)

But Tony Rodgers who runs A&R is a minority developer in the footsteps of his father, Theo Rodgers who had, together with Otis Warren, put one of the first new developments on Howard Street as far back as 1990 (when the team was selected). The 430,000 sqft Crescent Federal office building had been innovative and in that it was minority driven, large and happening on the Westside where not much happened at all. For the Innovation Village to seek ties to a proven African American developer makes good sense, after all, the approach to the Innovation Village being not one of the many previously failed government program (remember the Empowerment Villages?) but a business driven approach of inclusion.

Tony Rodgers of A&R consequently had been a member of a temporary steering committee giving the Innovation Village initial guidance. The One Baltimore office space is the last door in a narrow dead end corridor next to the emergency stair and an electric closet. If everything goes by plan, a more suitable accommodation will soon be announced as the first development opportunity that the Innovation Village will make public shortly as the home of the first innovation center.

I will publish the interview and conversation in tomorrow's blogpost. Stay tuned and find out how the two hour discussion with Richard May turned me from a skeptic to a believer in the concept.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Sun article about the creation of the Innovation Village

Constituting organizations collaborating on the Innovation Village:


Mount Royal Community Development Corporation (MRCDC)  
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) 
Coppin State University 
Harbor Bank 
Startup Soirée 
Baltimore City Community College (BCCC)
Maryland Department of Commerce
Greater Baltimore Economic Alliance
One Baltimore
Emerging Technology Centers 


Baltimore Corps
Center for Urban Families
Coppin Heights CDC
Friends of Druid Hill Park
Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council
Harbor Bank CDC
Madison Park Neighborhood Association
Marble Hill Neighborhood Association
Maryland Food System Map
Mount Royal Improvement Association
Multicultural Prayer Movement
Penn North Resource Center
Penn North Neighborhood Association
Penn North Kids Safe Zone
Reservoir Hill
Rowdy Orbit Impact
St. Francis Neighborhood Center
Union Baptist Church


Avenue Bakery
Bithgroup Energy
Carbon Fibre Media
Cornerstone Capital
Conscious Venture Lab
Dovecote Café
Emerging Technology Center (ETC)
Global Air Media
Good News Baltimore
Horsetail Technologies
LTN Global
Startup Maryland
Six Point Pictures
The Startup Nest
Yet Analytics

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