Club at Collington Square students gather outside the Hoen Lithograph Building before the groundbreaking. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Standing on a podium set up inside the hollowed-out shell of the old A. Hoen & Co. building in East Baltimore on Tuesday, Ella Durant touched on a distant memory of the structure from her childhood.

“Third grade, my elementary school, we took a tour through this building when it was operational,” Durant, president of the Collington Square Neighborhood Association, said. “Now, it sat empty—oh my goodness—35, 40 years. It’s coming alive again.”

The abandoned 85,000-square-foot complex at 2101 E. Biddle Street, once famous for printing National Geographic maps, Topps baseball cards and even Confederate currency, is set to undergo a $26 million renovation that’s been in the works for almost four years. City and state officials, neighbors, developers and others gathered on a windy Tuesday afternoon for a groundbreaking ceremony, complete with golden shovels.

Canton-based Cross Street Partners and Oliver-headquartered City Life Historic Properties, partnering with the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, plan to redevelop the industrial site into the Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a mixed-use facility for nonprofits, social enterprises, researchers, an adult literacy center and a workforce incubator offering construction job training and other opportunities. It will also house event and retail spaces, developers say.

The city sold it to the development group last year for $200,000 after years of planning. As part of the deal, the city awarded a $500,000 grant to Strong City Baltimore to pass on to Cross Street Partners for environmental remediation, though it apparently wasn’t sufficient. This week’s Board of Estimates agenda includes an additional $530,184 grant to be spent on additional environmental remediation.

Bill Struever, CEO of Cross Street Partners, noted one environmental obstacle–spilled PCBs, an industrial fluid linked to cancer, which he called a “pain in the neck” to remove—during an otherwise celebratory and optimistic address. A chief goal of the development project, he said, is to “try to take the desolation and create magic with a place to live and work and create.”

He mentioned other historic buildings renovated by Cross Street Partners, including Under Armour’s headquarters, once a Proctor & Gamble soap factory, and the nearby old American Brewery Building, now occupied by Humanim, “have more jobs today than in their heyday.” He expects the same from the Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

“I believe it’s gonna be one of the best, coolest, funnest spaces to work that we’ve ever created,” Struever said.

Photo by Ethan McLeod

Strong City Baltimore will be one of the center’s nonprofit tenants. Karen Stokes, the organization’s CEO, told the crowd that “if all goes as expected, around this time next year, we’ll be celebrating our 50th anniversary inside this amazing historic landmark in the Collington Square neighborhood.”

She said Strong City, which was the Greater Homewood Community Corporation until 2016, began contemplating a move to East Baltimore two years ago. Leaders then began forging relationships with neighbors and community organizations to “be sure that our presence in this community would be wanted and valued by the people living, working and worshiping here,” Stokes said.

As a show of good faith, the nonprofit took over operations for the Club at Collington Square, which offers after-school and summer arts programming for students. The development partners doubled down on that good faith Tuesday, presenting a $75,000 check to the club, with its young pupils taking the stage with their director to accept the donation.

City Life’s CEO, Anne Riggle, celebrated the arrival of redevelopment, once isolated to the East Baltimore Development Inc. section (previously called Middle East) just south of the nearby train tracks, in Collington Square.

“With the EBDI footprint and everything that’s happened in the EBDI, we would not be have been able to move to this neighborhood,” she said.

EBDI, a nonprofit supported by federal, state and city government, Hopkins, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and many others, has undertaken a $1.8 billion overhaul of Johns Hopkins Hospital’s 88-acre footprint. The effort has controversially included demolishing entire blocks of row homes and businesses, though the nonprofit’s partners have defended its success in revitalizing the area.

Stokes noted that City Life itself developed 26 properties in the EBDI zone, and has been working there for 10 years. The Strong City Baltimore CEO said Riggle’s firm will be bringing its construction-employment training program to the Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

City officials, developers and others get ready break ground on the project with golden shovels. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Even before Mayor Catherine Pugh, council members, state lawmakers, developers and others shoveled the first mounds of dirt with their golden tools, speakers touted a broader vision for East Baltimore that begins with overhauling Collington Square.

State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, whose district includes East Baltimore, recounted former Mayor Clarence H. Du Durns’ vision for the city’s east side in a choked-up voice: “He said to me, ‘We’re gonna rebuild East Baltimore to Clifton Park, and we’re gonna put this neighborhood back like we found it in the ’40s and the ’50s.’”

Struever mapped it out in more detail–and more expansively–grandfathering in the areas just north of Harbor East, where more than 1,300 public housing units and a school will be demolished to make way for a $1 billion, city-led redevelopment plan.

“Imagine: Lake Clifton, come down North Avenue, Gay Street, down through this neighborhood, [the Baltimore] Food Hub, Hoen; we’re bursting through Amtrak [train tracks], EBDI,” Struever said. “And then with a new choice neighborhood that the mayor is leading from Monument Street all the way down to the harbor at Eastern Avenue–that $1 billion investment that’s taking the Perkins Homes and the old Somerset Homes and making a great new neighborhood–that’s East Baltimore in a new life.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...