Friday, October 27, 2017

Walbrook: Homes instead of jobs

The visuals and the talk were all about demolition: The Governor with a sledge-hammer in hand, the Governor in a giant back-hoe knocking down a wooden addition with such a gusto and persistence that it proved the sledgehammer an apt symbolic present. In his speech the Governor's stressed
how many blighted rowhouses the State's "Project CORE" has already knocked down (1,154).
The Governor with a sledge hammer presented
to him by Osprey Development
CEO Brian Lopez (Photo: Philipsen)

All this could easily conceal that Thursday's event at Walbrook Lumber was actually about building something: Five acres worth of new housing taking place on the abandoned site which stood vacant after the old Baltimore Baltimore staple for construction woods of all kind closed in 2013 and consolidated in a new location in Cockeysville.

While the 2016 Coppin University Facilities Masterplan envisioned the area to be used by Coppin University for parking and a conference center, the concept that broke ground on Thursday envisions the mixed-use Walbrook Mill development, in typical real estate tradition named for what used to be there not what will be. What will be are 140 units in all with some retail, office space and job training. The first phase to be realized comprises a 65 unit mixed income apartment building developed by Osprey Development in collaboration with the Copping Heights Community Development Corporation. The complex has been designed by Cho Benn, Holback Architects and passed through initial UDARP design reviews. The design concept even envisions preserving some of the old mill structures and retain some of the character of the lumber mill which was founded in 1918 by Isodore Zulver. The spaces will accommodate workforce development facilities.
Model of the 5 acres site (north Ave is left)

Project CORE funded the acquisition and the demolition started by the Governor with a $2 million grant. The residential development is expected to cost $17.8 million and will be funded with low income housing tax credits, CDA rental housing loans and the City's HOME program as well as private debt. The developer group hopes the CORE money will also flow for construction of the future phases.
North Avenue view of the new development (Cho Benn Holback)

Speakers described the project as part of the North Avenue Rising project which was kicked off last week in another ceremony with the Governor. Indeed, finally one can see activity all along the five-mile corridor. Other notable redevelopments on North Avenue are the Gateway affordable housing projects by Wolde Development further West on North Avenue and the Madison Park Housing development further east, both under construction.

As usual at ground-breaking or ribbon cutting events, everybody was jubilant about the development. But surveying the 5 acre former lumberyard and its extensive buildings, one can't help but wonder why it is that a business that is so sorely needed in West Baltimore is now located in Cockeysville.

Here in the heart of the community the company had offered precisely the type of jobs the young man  and women who are jobless so desperately need. Here was a locally owned business with a stellar reputation for the kind of milled materials that are hard to find at Lowes or Home Depot selling and making the kind of specialty products that one needs particularly when restoring the historic West Baltimore homes: Newel posts, stair banisters, wood windows, wooden medallions, all the authentic materials carefully crafted by a company that cares and which one can't find in the suburbs. All could be selected, bought or ordered right where the products are needed to turn the neighborhoods around. Why did the City economic development agency BDC let this business go? Why did the City let it happen that the remaining industrial uses in Sharp Leadenhall were all relocated to outside the City when Caves Valley built its new Stadium Square development? Why did Locke Insulator close its factory in the City after Under Armour began sprouting around it?
Walbrook Lumber site, active until 2013 (Photo: Philipsen)

Each of these recent cases has its own story, for sure, and each company owner may have had good reasons to move. Collectively, though, one gets the impression that the City does not do enough for business retention while it is too eager to welcome shiny new apartments. And that is odd, considering how much Baltimore needs jobs and how many locations there are to build new apartments.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Governor Hogan in a backhoe: Too much demolition with project CORE? (Photo Philipsen)


  1. Min. Glenn Isaac Smith, Board Member Coppin Heights CDCOctober 27, 2017 at 6:59 PM

    Klaus in the case of Walbrook Mill this project will act as an anchor to spur future development along West North Avenue. There is also job training attached to the project. Coppin Heights CDC has been laboring very diligently to bring investment to Coppin Heights and West North Avenue. This project is a community asset in an area devoid of investment far too long.

  2. Mr. Glen, you don't get it. Your board doesn't get it, either.