Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Reinvestment without displacement: North Avenue Market

“Our aim is to foster an environment conducive to artistic experimentation, creativity, and serendipitous encounters—the very essence of innovation and collaboration,” Ellen Janes, executive director of Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP).
Ever since artists revived New York's SOHO they have become the target of revitalization strategies, in Baltimore's Station North District probably more so than in the  three other "Arts and Entertainment Districts" in the City. Revitalization through artists has also often been described as gentrification that would lead eventually to displacement in the community, including the pioneering artists themselves. 

Revitalization has not been going smoothly or steadily forward in Station North but an investment model developed by the Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP) is especially equipped to prevent the unintended consequences. 
North Avenue Market 2012 (Photo: Philipsen)

With a change in ownership one of the largest properties in the district (not counting the school headquarters), the North Avenue Market complex has become the latest application for  CBP's investment strategy in the arts district. 

The Building 

The North Avenue Market doesn't only sit at the heart of the district at Charles Street and North Avenue, with its  distinctive cupola towers and tile roof in the Spanish Revival style the building qualifies as a historic structure in the North Central National Register District created in 2002.  Even under the previous owners Mike Shecter and Carolyn Frenkil the arts were a theme to revive the market complex which covers almost the entire block between Charles and Street and Maryland Avenue. In 2008, a $1 million initiative to restore the building as an “arts-focused mix of shops, eateries, and offices”  was launched. In 2012 the rehabilitation for the market was supported with grant money from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and already then from the Central Baltimore Partnership.

At one point success seemed within reach with a vibrant mix of art oriented uses: Liam Flynn's Irish bar with its country music jam sessions, the Windup gallery cum bar and performance space, Red Emma's with its bookstore, coffeeshop and book readings, a print shop and a gallery had found a home in the cavernous spaces. They all formed an artistic biotope special to the Station North arts district.  

The western arcade of the Market. It will be opened
to be a circulation spine as in the original market
(Photo: Philipsen)
But all of those market tenants came and went. Even the Y-knot lot that rounded out the block had to be closed because the lease was not extended. (A much smaller version is supposed to rise diagonally across the street on the lot left behind after the demolition of the former Kagro building). With no permanent tenants left in the sprawling market building and after decades of ownership and various attempts of modernization and upkeep of the aging building and its ailing infrastructure, Shecter and Frankel threw in the towel, in spite of the their other arts related investments elsewhere in the district. 

"As far as the building goes, Carolyn and I, we've had some successes and we've had some struggles, as everybody has. What it really came down to was the realization that the building needs a lot more than what Carolyn and I can do for it. What we're really hoping for is that someone with some patience and deeper pockets can come in and do a lot more with more bang for the buck, or make something happen in a fast, meaningful way." (Mike Shecter as quoted in the BBJ in August 2022)

The ups and downs of North Avenue

The location at Charles and North is an interesting location. Charles Street as the spine of the "white L" is essentially thriving end to end. North Avenue, by contrast traverses the two wings of the "black butterfly" and has been ravaged by disinvestment end to end. Obviously, the intersection of these two zones has a pull in both directions and this area of North Avenue has seen relatively many development projects. Even though, owning property in this segment of North Avenue is no walk in the park. The combination of longstanding historic disinvestment, artists, galleries and small businesses who usually don't have very deep pockets combined with the pandemic and all its consequences make for a fragile mix that saw the demise of what had been considered benchmarks of success: Joe Square Pizza closed, the Parkway closed, even the Maryland art school MICA had to cut back in the wake of fewer students registering with them. 

Almost a city block: Floorplan of the market in the current "chopped
up" state. (Source: Frank Lucas/Mike Shecter 2012)
Some cornerstones of the arts district hung on: The former Load of Fun conversion to a center for non-profits and performance, the conversions of the  Center Theater into the Impact Hub survive and a recent addition, Jubilee's revival of a former dance night club into an educational hub. The public roam saw some small changes as well through MTA's "North Avenue Rising" project that brought bus and bike lanes to North Avenue.

Central Baltimore Partnership to the rescue

Enter the new North Avenue Market Development LLC and Central Baltimore Partnership model of rescuing imperiled buildings that are significant for the survival of the arts district. In this case the development group consists of a joint venture partnership consisting of the Central Baltimore Future Fund, CBP and Twenty-Two Lanes Development LLC, headed by John Renner of Timshel Development, with Matt Oppenheim and Michael Haskins Jr. as partners. The Twentytwo refers to the bowling lanes in the market, Timshel is Hebrew for "freedom to".

The West side of the Market in 2017 (Photo: Philipsen)

The set-up for the new North Avenue Market regime is tailored after similar success stories forged by the Central Baltimore Partnership (CMP) and its $10 million Future Fund loan pool established in 2016. For example  Area 405a place for artists and Waverly Town Hall, a renovated  small market hall on Guilford Avenue for which CBP and its real estate affiliate raised the funds to buy the building and subsidized both the developer and tenant fit out, and assists in recruiting and supporting tenants according to CBP ED Ellen Janes. Waverly Main Street and various businesses were other key players. Other Future Fund projects are  the old Odell’s nightclub on North Avenue, Red Emma’s in Waverly and the Voxel Theater on 25th Street. 

In all cases money from the Future Fund seeded the project and all types of other funds and tax credits are used to finance the usually very high cost of building stabilization and repair to save the buildings and the users that have found a home in them. According to Ellen Janes, Executive Director of CBP, the fund is in need of being replenished. Ideally a revolving loan fund, revenue from previous projects is so far absent or minimal, thus the fund and the projects rely on subsidies from City, State and CBP stakeholders. 

North Ave Market in its very early days
(Museum of Industry)

“I cannot find another example of a community coming together to save an arts space like what has happened with Area 405. With a very strong development team, we took a calculated risk on a revitalization strategy. We couldn’t find the model, so we created it. I hope to see it replicated again in Baltimore and in other parts of the country. It is feasible, and it is critically important.” (Ellen Janes, Executive Director Central Baltimore Partnership)

In the case of the market it was necessary to compete against speculators who would snatch the building up and let it sit waiting for better times, a often times hurtful practice well known across Baltimore. According to Ellen Janes it helped that the sellers were assisting in financing of the purchase cost. 

The North Avenue Market project

In the case of the market, the cost of fixing the building up is estimated to be $30 million, based on a design approach put together by architect Megan Ercrat of Present Company. Ms Ercrat says many people know the market from the various stores it housed over time, but hardly anybody knows the market in its entirety. Too much of the floor area in the back had been locked off. The second floor bowling alleys and the full 40,000sf basement were mothballed for decades.  Ercrat says opening up the two original arcades where one can see the arched entries at the bottom of each tower will allow code compliant access and egress to the entire floor area, as in the original concept as a market hall. The western arcade still features a hidden barrel vault,, something that was lost at the eastern entry. 

Pop-Up bar in the former Wind-Up Space during Artscape
(Photo: Philipsen)

$4.8 million come from an allocation of the highly competitive State historic tax credits which were awarded in 2023. Some $14 million of the overall cost are assigned for the shell, the rest for interior work, systems and allowances for tenant fit outs, according to John Renner. The project will also use New Market tax credits.

It takes a village to do revitalization without displacement. It cannot happen without stakeholder subsidies (several large organizations such as UB, MICA and Hopkins are part of the CBP partnership) government participation and many on the ground organizations, individuals and businesses. On the Station North A&E District Facebook page one can find the long list of supporters for the North Avenue Market: 

The acquisition was made possible by Maryland capital funds supported by Sen. Cory McCray and former Del. Maggie McIntosh; Baltimore City's nonprofit revitalization lender the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund; the sellers and longtime owners Mike Shecter and Carolyn Frenkil; and capital grants from the Maryland Dept. of Housing and Community Development and Johns Hopkins University. The new owners have received over $4 million in Maryland Revitalization Historic Tax Credits, the largest award in 2023.

John Renner, the lead for the redevelopment as an arts hub, intends to keep temporary tenants around during the year that will be needed to finalize financing and plans and a long-term perspective. "You will see a lot more activity soon" he told me. He also mentioned the exciting aspect that one could walk out from what has been an upstairs bowling alley in a semi covered space towards the roof edge east and west of the towers. These areas could be activated and provide great views, Renner said. Jones noted that there is "a pipeline" of folks who want to be in Station North, which makes Renner hopeful that the building could be filled, including the 40,000 sf attractive basement where he can imagine a fitness space and a makerspace. 

“There is a spiral staircase that leads to that upper space. I fell in love with this building. Cleaning out the old dropped ceiling will reveal the full value of the old market hall. I want to make this neighborhood better than it is right now. The market really is a linchpin for Station North and central Baltimore.” (John Renner as quoted in the SUN)

The history of the Market

Few are old enough to remember the time when the North Avenue Market was actually a bustling private  market and not the shell for rapidly changing bars and venues that it had become in the last half century, and even after the Station North Art and Entertainment District took shape and brought a renaissance to the area. 

In fact, the market for all its glory expressed in the facade and iconic towers, started on the wrong foot when it opened in 1928, just one year before the Great Depression. It quickly fell into disinvestment resulting in empty stalls. While the Dow Jones needed 25 years to recover to pre-depression levels in 1954, the market never fully recovered. It got chopped up to house some known chains such as the Read's Drugstore and shrank down to just 30 stalls from originally 200. Thus the briefly glorious market limped along in various forms until a fateful fire in 1968 almost gave it the death blow.

North Avenue Market (Museum of Industry/ Baltimore

After the fire, the market was purchased by James and Carolyn Frenkil, owners of the Center City, Inc., development company, who planned to reopen a portion of the market over the next six years. They sold the northern portion of the building to be developed into high-rise senior citizen housing. But apparently the cash from the partial sale was never enough to bring back some semblance of old shine. In the years after the fire a few stores made a go at the corner of Maryland Avenue and along the then still busy North Avenue such as a supermarket, Rite Aid (the successor to Read's) and a Murphy’s variety store. Eventually Mike Shecter joined Carolyn Frankil, and the explorations with more art oriented venues began. 

Right before the building transferred into new ownership in 2023 Artscape transformed it for a few days with pop up installations in all the places that had been vacated with the improvements still intact. It was like magic, the North Avenue Market was back alive. (Exhilarating Artscape). One of the pop-ups, the Mobtown Ballroom, at the time still located in Pigtown, has now moved to the former Red Emma Space, although it isn't clear how permanent this new location will be. 

Can the Future Fund model scale?

Would this new approach using a revolving investment fund and a broader investor group work elsewhere in Baltimore? Will it be sustainable and scalable? The Guilford Hall on Greenmount Avenue was successfully completed, but it was just completed, too early to see if it is a sustainable model. Area 405 is on the long journey towards being self-sustaining. Overall the eleven neighborhoods in which the CBD is active represent success. They are the healthiest and most diverse neighborhoods Baltimore has to offer, proof that growth without displacement is possible. 

The model of revitalization without displacement is important for cities that are as underinvested as Baltimore, because displacement looms as soon as dilapidated real estate becomes an object of speculation, something that has already happened in Station North. It is even more important in overinvested and gentrified  neighborhoods and entire cities, such as San Francisco or Paris that tend to see lots of displacement, both on the residential and the business side. Just this  week this NYT article describes the massive public investment in affordable housing  and small stores in Paris to maintain the authenticity and diversity of the city. It looks like CPB and its partners are on the right track. 

Klaus Philipsen FAIA

(As president of D:Center the author was a tenant in the North Ave Market around 2012)

Related on this blog:

Is North Avenue Rising or Sinking?

Good bye, Liam Flynn

Other sources:



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