Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Social Entrepreneur re-invents Remington

In the minefield of the discussion about neighborhood disinvestment on the one side and gentrification on the other there is lots of talk about the Social Entrepreneur, the for profit private investor or developer whose agenda isn't just profit but the social good. Whatever that exactly is.
R House on Friday at lunch time (Photo: Philipsen)

A Baltimore example of a social entrepreneur is Thibault Mannekin. His company Seawall Development has transformed Remington and even critics can find little not to like. For years Remington was a well kept secret and only a few planners and community leaders thought that this could be an area that is ready to "pop" thanks to its proximity to Johns Hopkins. But there were many others who said this area won't go anywhere. Too industrial, too separated from downtown by the languishing North Avenue corridor and from flourishing Hampden by the JFX. For years the highlights of change were vacant house demolitions, community gardens and the one at a time renovations of small row houses, block by block. 

The idea to plop a big Walmart super center onto the old Anderson Auto lots seemed in keeping with Remington's image as the Cinderalla of Baltimore. Just good enough for big boxes so people from other communities can shop. Those who knew better all along fought the Walmart until it was finally defeated. Regardless who deserves the credit for the stunning turnaround of Remington, a feat with many fathers and mothers, there is no one entity that has changed the neighborhood more than Thibault Mannekin and his development company Seawall, social entrepreneurs of a high order. 
R House on Friday at lunch time (Photo: Philipsen)

Beginning with the modest but very innovative concept of affordable housing just for teachers, the company bought and converted what is now known as Miller's Court and cafe Charmington. The project was a good deed on many ends: It took a vacant decrepit structure off the books of abandonment, it provided affordable housing and  enticed teachers to teach in Baltimore taking housing and finding an appropriate community off their shoulders. So that the teaches can engage with the community various common spaces were offered and the cafe established as a popular community hangout. So popular, indeed, that it was President Obama's choice to meet Baltimoreans at a visit some time back. 
Remington fabric: The rowhouse  (Photo: Philipsen)

Teachers pestered Thibault Mannekin to buy townhouses and fix them up so they could marry, have children and graduate from apartment living. Seawall obliged and the rehabbed row houses sold like hotcakes.  An old car repair garage across the street was converted into an innovative restaurant cum butcher cum theater. The combination and each element within are highly experimental. A large lot at 28th Street became the mixed use development Remington Row with market rate apartments and shops and now just a block to the north R House opened, a cutting edge food hall, essentially a re-imagined mall food court without the mall.

But everything in R House is different: The restaurateurs aren't national chain fast food joints but fledgling high end producers of ethnic food. The chefs are start-up entrepreneurs who are supposed to get their sea legs here before opening their own independent restaurants. There is no desire to keep the businesses for a long time. The training wheels of the provided facility are supposed to come off after some time. and the architecture is a re-imagined historic auto warehouse designed by Baltimore's foremost architecture critic and UDARP member Pavilia Ilieva's PI.KL Studio in Baltimore.
Remington Row (ULI)

Each Seawall project is a new concept, each totally different from the other, and each a proof of concept experiment, a testing of the waters with no-up front assurance that it would work. Risk taking, careful analysis of the demand and the opportunities. None of these projects were just something a developer dreamed up and plopped into the world on a whim. Each project has been developed in concert with community master plans, community cooperation and is based on previously unmet needs.

In spite of the sheer mass of stuff coming from one company Remington has not yet become a company town. However, one would think Seawall has maxed it out in this location. There are already howls about gentrification. To its credit, Seawall doesn't just dismiss this as "collateral damage" of its investments but is engaged in helping the community to create a community land trust to offer additional affordable housing that would be protected.

Mayor Pugh who worked with Seawall as the investor and developer of the Design School Pugh helped to create said she wants to see the type of investments that went into Hampden and Remington replicated in disinvested African American communities. She believes that private public partnerships are critical for moving the "Baltimore forward." The social entrepreneur model may be just what she is looking for.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA.

Baltimore Magazine
Remington Row (Rendering Hord Caplan Macht Architects)

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