Cynthia McIntyre

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Sweet Cottage for Simple Living

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HOT HOUSE: 601 Walker Avenue, Towson 21212 

Storybook farmhouse  in Lake Walker neighborhood, built in 1891.  Two stories, four bedrooms, one and a half baths on a half acre of landscaped grounds: $250,000 

What:  Ever wish that life could be simpler?  This picturesque 1891 farmhouse cottage and its tiny Lake Walker community are like a trip back in time — and not just because the owners, Robert and Joan Browne, have lived here for over 50 years.  Mr. Browne is a long-time Baltimore artist, and his wife is his favorite model. Together they have filled the house with art and left it much as it was at the turn of the century. Enter through a side gate, onto a small porch and into the entrance hall. Narrow stairs climb to the second floor, and a pretty living and dining room feature long windows that look out to the garden. Across the hall is a wonderful den with fireplace, and bay window overlooking the side garden. Brick herringbone paths wind from here out to the detached shed and artists studio. The kitchen, at the back of the house, is surprisingly spacious, with brick linoleum floor and wooden cabinets, all circa 1970. Just off the kitchen is the half bath, small and dark, in desperate need of a re-do. The basement is a true, unfinished cellar, with an entrance to the back garden. There are hardwood floors throughout, and lots of quirky built-ins and craftsman touches. The bedrooms and one full bath (no master suite here) are all upstairs: short on closets but long on windows and charm. An attic, accessed through pull-down stairs, was once a fifth (servants?) bedroom.  No central air conditioning, but new roof. And a separately deeded parcel of land, included with the property and located  in Baltimore county, which seems to explain the Stoneleigh school district.  A very unique and wonderful property.

Where: Lake Walker is just north of Northern Parkway and east of York Road, right at the city/county line.  It was built at the turn of the century on what remained of the ‘Drumquastle’ estate — a parcel of several hundred acres given to William Govan in 1775 by the sixth Lord Calvert and named after his father’s estate in Scotland. Follow Gittings Avenue east, across York Road, and you’re in Lake Walker — a few streets of cottages and bungalows, well kept and quiet, where, according to Mrs. Browne, “everyone looks out for each other, and there are lots of children.”  From here you can walk to Belvedere Square as well as the multitude of shops on York Road like Panera, Party City, Wells Liquor — the world is your oyster.  The highly-regarded Stoneleigh Elementary is your local public school. 

Why: Unimaginably sweet. Like living in a fairy tale, or your dream grandmother’s house in the woods.  Narrow little stairs, a funny sleeping porch upstairs, the den (with fireplace)  overlooking the garden (with artist studio). Convenient location.  Lots of potential.  And you gotta love the price.

Would Suit: Edward Scissorhands, Tasha Tudor, Pam and Jim from The Office.  

NB: It does need quite a bit of work. Depending on your personality and budget, you could live in the house and slowly bring in into the modern era, or do the major work before you move in. Bathrooms, kitchen, cellar and attic are ripe for renovation.

Sold! A Step by Step Guide to Buying a House at Auction

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With historic Maryland mansions being sent to auction like old furniture – the Stemmer House, Mensana House and Cliffeholme estates all in recent memory – it seems anyone with an eye for a house and a nose for a bargain might be tempted to start waving a paddle.  And it’s not just high-end real estate that’s been affected. No one could miss the signs cropping up all over Baltimore. Absolute Auction. Foreclosure Sale. To Be Sold At Auction. Driving slowly by, you can’t help wondering how much that house would bring at auction and whether, if the price were low enough, you could make some money on it yourself. (Cut to vision of the fam lined up in front of Cliffholme for Christmas card photo.) Well, you might — and you might not. The process is not hard, but you need to do your homework. 

I started by talking to Dan Billig, of the long established Baltimore auction firm A.J. Billig. Mr. Billig’s grandfather founded the firm in 1918, and he now runs it along with his father, brother and son. In typical upfront Baltimore style, Dan reminds me that “our client is the seller, not the buyer.  We work with the buyer to facilitate the deal, but our responsibility is first, to the seller. That said, we’re straight shooters, and we’re not going to mislead anyone.”  

Ok, fair enough, but is there really money to be made here? What about all those nutty (but irresistible) advertorials like “How I Became a Millionaire –With Little or No Money Down?” None of us wants to lose money, let alone get outright taken in the process. Dan confesses to “being a big fan of A&E and HGTV” — network homes to the popular shows Flip This House and House Hunters — but also promises that “there really are tremendous opportunities out there.” The fact that currently, a third of American home sales are houses bought at foreclosure (six times the rate of foreclosure sales in a healthy market) seems to indicate that he’s right. 

If you’re serious about this, you may already be checking out auction properties — on the A.J. Billig website for local real estate, or Auctionzip.com and RealtyTrac.com for real estate nationwide. Public foreclosure auctions of bank-held real estate, sometimes called Trustee’s Sales, are the most transparent, least complicated type of real estate auction, and that’s what this article is about. Tax auctions or short sales are better left to buyers with real expertise or professional advice. That said, getting a realtor who’s knowledgeable about foreclosures can be a plus in any situation. 

If you’re only half serious, and you’ve simply just spotted an interesting property, what’s the first step? “Call the auctioneer,” says Billig. The name will be on the sign or in the ad.  He points out that Billig now offers QRC or “quick response code”  — basically a bar code on the sign itself that you can scan with your cell phone and get right to the web page to get information on the property. 

OK, Step 1, call the auction house to get the date and location of the auction, terms of sale, and a time to view the property.  AUCTION SALES ARE “AS IS.”  You need to get in there with a contractor to look around and see where the problems are. Almost always, it’s roof, plumbing, heat and AC. This part needs to happen fast, three weeks is probably the maximum, a few days is common. It would be great to have a contractor on-call, and a lot of them are not too busy these days. Now,  get online and start researching the neighborhood — the average house price, the quality of the local schools, the rental market and the property taxes.  Be sure to drive by the property again, to get a further idea of the neighborhood. There’s always the chance of a casual meeting with the owner (and possible last-minute deal before auction) or neighbor (with some insider information to help your bidding decisions). Take pictures and notes, but be discreet, as the owner may still be living in the home! 

Once you’ve lined up a viewing and done your research, know that if you place a bid and win, you will be required to put down roughly 10% in cash or cashier’s check immediately — like as soon as the gavel goes down. The rest needs to be paid by a specified date, usually in about 30 days. If it’s not paid, you lose the deposit.

So Step 2, organize the financing. Unless you can pay the full amount in cash, in which case all you need to do is get a cashier’s check for roughly 10% of what you plan to bid, you’ll need financing. This needs to be worked out ahead of time with your bank, because especially now, you can’t assume the credit will be there, and unless you are deemed totally credit-worthy, banks are more reluctant to lend money to buy a house in foreclosure. One reason for this is that auction deposits are not refundable, should something go wrong. 

Step 3, — and everyone agrees on this — get a title search. While Billig guarantees that there are no hidden liens on their houses — in other words, no money owed by the owners that the new buyer will be obligated to pay — you still need the advantage of a title search. Betsy Jiranek, a Baltimore title agent whose company, American Land Title Corporation specializes in title searches, explains it this way, “we make sure you are getting the title ‘free and clear of all liens and encumbrances.’ We search land records, tax records and house history, looking for bankruptcies, wills, anything that could endanger the free passing of the deed.” This is public information, she reminds me, but most people are not comfortable researching and interpreting all the documentation that’s out there. Normally, a title search takes a week, she says, “but in a pinch we can turn it around in a day.”

Step 4, get title insurance.  “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, everything is fine,” says Jiranek, “but title insurance is for that last one percent.” In the words of Dan Billig, “ I would absolutely get it (title insurance). It’s so cheap, you’d be foolish not to.”

Step 5, determine your bid amount. Unless there is a minimum bid requirement, a safe bet is at least 20% below market value, and as far below that as you think you can go, considering local real estate conditions and the properties potential for increasing in value with repairs and improvements. You’ll want to gather the following information: 

  • Outstanding balance on the mortgage
  • Estimated market value
  • Other liens and loans the owner may have taken out
  • History of ownership (if it was owned by a contractor or corporation, it maybe less of a bargain than a distressed homeowner)
  • Your monthly expenses as the owner of the house – mortgage payment, taxes, insurance, repairs, etc 

Standard advice suggests that you subtract all your costs as a buyer (mortgage balance, additional liens, repair work) from the estimated market value of the property, and use that number as the basis for your bid. A note of warning here: WATCH OUT FOR HIDDEN COSTS.

Many, but not all,  foreclosure sales will add a 5% to 10% “buyer’s premium,” basically the auctioneer’s fee. Also, you might have to pay interest (daily) on the unpaid balance of the sale price. And typically, the buyer pays the closing costs (not the seller, as is usual in a non-foreclosure sale). Obviously, these items can add a lot to the total price, but many of them are negotiable. Go back to Step 1, and talk about ‘terms of sale’ with the auction house. 

NB. Be prepared for cancellations. Incredible as it seems, over half of all foreclosure auctions are cancelled for one reason or another. Often they are postponed with no new date specified. If you can, plan on attending an auction ahead of time as an observer, just to see how it works. This will pay off in terms of confidence and know-how on the big day. It’s fascinating in a way, and good people-watching at a minimum.    

Finally the day comes. You’re at the auction, armed with your cashier’s check for 10%, your financing, your title insurance and your trusted contractor’s estimates for the work needed.  Step 6. You’re ready to bid. You’ll want to: 

  • Arrive early and locate the auctioneer
  • Don’t expect the other bidders to be friendly, and don’t let this intimidate you. On the other hand be open to information and pick up any cues you can.
  • Dress like a banker. Other bidders may assume you are one and back down from a bidding war. 
  • If several bidders are battling it out, wait until the bidding dies down before making yours.  
  • Set a firm ceiling for your bid. Avoid getting auction fever and overbidding, which can result in little or no bargain for you.  

Finally, be realistic. Twenty-five percent savings is what you should expect from buying a house at auction. Sure, there’s the woman who bought a house in South Hampton for $45,000 and it’s now worth $1.6 million, but that probably won’t be you. The sanest approach comes from a professional. Betsy Jiranek, who sees a lot of potential buyers, offers this advice “really, I tell clients, ‘don’t get emotional — there will always be another house.’”

 

Splendor in the Woods

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One Acre and a Barn, on Brightside

HOT HOUSE: 7340 Brightside Road, Woodbrook 21212 

Contemporary converted barn, circa 1898, with beamed ceilings and open floor plan on 1.2 acres . Four bedrooms, two full and two half baths on two stories: $1,175,000

What: Once an old wooden barn that was part of a larger estate, now a light filled, open-plan home that fits snugly into its gently sloping lot, just steps from Lake Roland.  Completely renovated six years ago, the house has been thoughtfully and historically restored — keeping the integrity of the design, but adding stylish features like wide plank, old growth timber flooring, a new cook’s kitchen with stone and bamboo countertops, wood burning pizza oven, and a large screened porch overlooking the woods. A distinctive arched entry foyer leads directly to the large family room, where wide sliding doors along the wooded back of the house set a casual tone. The doors open onto a stone patio, with good entertaining potential, overlooking the woods. There are nice old wooden beams, as well as fireplaces, in the living room, family room and the roomy eat-in kitchen.  Upstairs, the four bedrooms offer sunny, treetop views of Lake Roland. The windows are double-paned, there is central air and electric heat. As a bonus, there is a neat old “bank barn” next to the house, a former stable (and chicken coop!)built into the bank of the hillside. It has the original doors and new French drains to keep it dry. It would make a wonderful guest house or studio.  

Where: Brightside is one of the most desirable streets in Woodbrook (adjacent to Ruxton but not quite Ruxton), a private, rural-ish road with lovely homes just a minute or two from the Baltimore City line. Heading north from the city on Charles Street, take a left at the light onto Bellona Avenue. Brightside is on your left, about a half mile down Bellona, and 7340 is at the end of the street, just before the lake. 

Why: Clean lines, unpretentious design, feeling of open space, nice details, that bank barn, and access to the wooded trails and shoreline of Lake Roland.  

Would Suit: Family (or not) who appreciate the woodsy property and the old/new aspect of the house.  

NB:  Although the trail-walking is great, “destination walking” is not really possible from here. No sidewalks, plus cars speed along Bellona in a rush to Graul’s. 

An Irish Fisherman’s Cottage in the other Baltimore

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An Irish Fisherman’s Cottage  – In Baltimore

HOT HOUSE:  Cove Hill, Baltimore, Co. Cork, Ireland

Small, 150 year old stone cottage overlooking the harbor in the town of Baltimore, West Cork, Ireland. Two bedrooms, one bath — walk to village: E185,000 ($260, 000) 

What:   A restored, period fisherman’s cottage with stunning views of Baltimore Harbor and Mt. Gabriel.  The house is “well kept up, tight-as-a drum and comfortable” -–  easy to maintain and use as a summer holiday home. It has been recently restored and extended, has two decent-sized bedrooms, a large dining room (18’x12’), and a living room with fireplace. Kitchen is small — not fancy, but well-appointed.  A pretty stone paved terrace faces west, to take full advantage of beautiful sunsets over the harbor. Town is about a five minute walk.   

Where: Baltimore is a picturesque sailing and fishing village on the western coastline of county Cork, one of the most appealing (and sunniest) corners of Ireland, noted for its excellent sailing waters and interesting past. The original Lord Baltimore took his name from here, for reasons that are lost to history. In 1631, the infamous “Sack of Baltimore” saw much of the population carried off by pirates, never to be seen again. The lighthouse at Mizen Head, a deserted village just up the rocky coast, is nicknamed Teardrop Point because it was the last glimpse of home for millions of Irish fleeing the famine, sailing for America. You get the idea…  

The house at Cove Hill is a short walk to the center of Baltimore, where good restaurants and bars, a local ferry stop and a well-known sailing school with classes for adults and kids keep things bustling, especially in the summer.     

Why:  No shopping malls. It’s unspoiled. It’s beautiful.  It’s something completely different. And it’s affordable. People are friendly, pubs are great, fishing is superb. There’s a world-class restaurant open three months a year on a tiny island accessible only by boat. Best of all, you’ll still be in Baltimore!

Would Suit: Hardy, seafaring folk. Active vacationers with a sense of adventure and some Irish ancestry. People who can take a long summer break — teachers, authors, telecommuters.   

NB:  While the drive is breathtaking and the airport is charming, it is, in fairness, a good one and a half hour drive from the Cork airport to Cove Hill.  And no direct flights leave for Cork from the U.S. You’ll have to fly to London or Dublin first. 

For Sale: Best Job in Baltimore

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A few weeks ago, Darielle Linehan, owner of the Ivy Bookshop, sent a letter to a select group of people. It read:

 

Dear Ivy Friends:

 

After much thought and consideration, I have decided to retire in early 2012 and I wanted you as loyal and valued customers to be among the first to know of this future change. This was an exceedingly difficult decision to make and came as a result of my wanting to spend more time with my family… 

 

The letter — available on the counter at The Ivy Bookshop, which Mrs. Linehan opened in 2002, and has owned and managed for nearly 10 years – goes on to say that she  is putting the Ivy up for sale and would welcome inquiries from any potential buyer.  She adds that beloved as the Ivy is, she believes it could be even better, under “new leadership with the requisite new ideas, attitudes and skill sets to better position our business for the future.”

 

If that isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is. How many times have you drifted out of the Ivy thinking “…owning the Ivy must be the best job in the world.”  The main reason for that — the amazing Ivy staff — is already in place, and our sources say they’re all staying – which alone is a reason to grab it.  The clientele is somewhere between loyal and addicted – and paying full price, knowing damn well they can get it cheaper on Amazon.

 

Alright, nobody makes a fortune in the book business. But we have real information saying that “if it’s not making money hand-over-fist, it’s definitely not losing money – and it has the potential to make much more.” Think more events, more publicity, and a website.  But please, keep the free gift-wrapping.

 

The Ivy Bookshop, all 2,200 square feet of it, is located in Lake Falls Village, at 6080 Falls Road. For inquiries call the Ivy, at 410-377-2966.


Rambling Roland Park Beauty

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HOT HOUSE: 204 Ridgewood Road, Baltimore 21210

A uniquely designed shingle-style mansion in Roland Park, built in 1900.  Over five thousand square ft. house on a one acre lot, with eight bedrooms, five baths, six working fireplaces and porches with views: $1,195,000

 

What: Holy gables, batman! A prime example of this great American architecture style. What’s special, besides the wide, domed gable in the front, is the amount of natural light that floods the interior from large, well-placed windows on the south-facing rear of the house. Porches wrap the house and overlook landscaped gardens, sloping lawn and trees. Enter the grand foyer, where sunshine from a huge, leaded glass window at the top of the double-wide stairs pours down to illuminate the ground floor. Sightlines are nicely designed, there are views of porches and sky from nearly every room. Large dining room to the right of the entrance hall, with the gourmet kitchen behind — it’s distinctive turquoise cabinetry might not be your first choice, but it works. Left side of the entrance has the living room, opening to a family room behind. All these rooms are big, (like 20’x15)’ so you may need to up the furniture budget.

Upstairs, many bedrooms, brochure says five, you could call it eight. The master bedroom has walk-in closets and en-suite bathroom, all on the old-fashioned side.  Bathrooms could use some updating too, showers are small. On the upside, there are several very functional claw-footed bathtubs.  The third floor has a wonderful artists studio, with windows on three sides, a few other bedrooms and a fantastic long narrow, light-filled room lined with built-in cabinets and drawers, like a butler’s pantry. There are also several enclosed porches with leaded glass windows. Hardwood floors throughout, unfinished basement, four-zoned radiator heating and a/c.

Where: Ridgewood Road leads off of Roland Avenue heading south, turn right just a few feet before Cold Spring Lane. Many of Roland Park’s prettiest houses are here, and there are sidewalks wide enough for dogs and strollers, making the ten minute stroll to Petit Louis or Eddie’s a pleasure. Literally two minutes to 83, via Cold Spring Lane, so a 10-minute drive to downtown Baltimore.  

Why:  The third floor artist studio, the porches, the back yard, the wide and generous spaces, the wonderful windows.

Would Suit: Executive family new to Baltimore, can’t believe what $1.2 million gets you here.  Landed Baltimore family, ready to ditch the starter home, not ready for the Valley.  Architecture buffs.

Why not: You can hear, but not see, Cold Spring Lane behind the wooded backyard. 

Downsizing with Elegance

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HOT HOUSE: 230 Stony Run Lane #3F Baltimore, MD 21210

Large, airy condo in the grand old Gardens of Guilford apartments near Johns Hopkins University.  Two bedroom, two bath, 1,510 sq. ft. home with stunning roof terrace: $299,000

What: A rare find. A large, well-maintained apartment in one of the most desirable buildings in north Baltimore. The Gardens of Guilford were built in 1924, a good year,  as America was riding a pre-Depression high and construction budgets were lavish. Its distinctive Mediterranean style–rounded roof tiles, thick walls, big windows, stucco exterior–whispers “old money.” Through attractive gardens and up two flights of stairs, #3F opens into an apartment that’s full of light and charm. A large, sunny living room to the left of the foyer has a wall of windows and French doors that open onto the roof terrace–easily the crown jewel of the building. Beautifully designed, generous in size and luxurious in planting, the terrace could comfortably accommodate a dinner party of six to eight, cocktails for twenty. A trickle of water runs musically into a small fountain. Dappled shade from tall trees creates a real feeling of oasis in the city. It’s hard to leave the terrace to go inside, but once there the apartment is a delight. The living room has a cozy fireplace and built-in bookcases. Walk through the open dining room into a nicely modernized kitchen, both with good-sized windows. Two hallways lead off the main area, one leads to the smaller of the bedrooms  (13×13’) and a new bathroom with glassed in-shower. The second hallway leads to a very big (13×19’) second bedroom, currently a chic office, with an expanse of windows running along one wall. Another wall has built-in cabinets with square doors, running floor to ceiling and providing a wealth of storage. There’s a good-sized closet here as well, and a second bathroom is out in the corridor.  Apartment has forced air heat and central air too, for days when even these amazing windows aren’t enough.  

Where: Tucked in between St. Paul Street and University Parkway, in the beautiful, quiet neighborhood of Tuscany-Canterbury. A very short walk to Johns Hopkins University, Charles Village and Baltimore Museum of Art. To get there, take 39th Street off of St. Paul Street or University Parkway to Stony Run Lane. Stay straight at the stop sign to Gardens of Guilford. Entrance is on the right at top of circle labeled 3.

Apartment is on the third floor to the right.  

Why: The roof terrace alone would do it, but this place checks a lot of boxes. Secluded yet convenient. Stylish yet dignified. Safe, secure and very walkable. 

Would Suit: Bronte Mitchell, the environmentalist who hooks up with Gerard Depardieu in Green Card, the ‘80’s romantic comedy.  If you haven’t seen it lately, then think Hopkins professor. Also, downsizers and/or travelers–it’s an ideal turn-the-key-and-go type building. 

Why Not: Watering the roof garden might become a chore… 

Cozy (Green) Treehouses Overlook Clipper Mill

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HOT HOUSE: 3415 Woodberry Avenue, Baltimore, 21211

Overlooking Clipper Mill and Woodberry, a contemporary style, new-built, green design, three story house in a small development with access to the Woodberry swimming pool: $529,000.

What: An interesting idea. Streuver Brothers started this group of 38 houses, then BB&T bank bought and finished them. Now they’re on the market as “contemporary park homes with wooded views and the latest in sustainable design options.” All true. Built to very high LEED silver environmental standards, they are currently the greenest houses in the mid-Atlantic. The houses are free-standing, although the lots are very small, and somehow they feel like town homes. High on an outcropping above the Clipper Mill village, they do offer a rare chance to own a contemporary home in an ancient and fascinating corner of the city. Inside, you walk up the stairs to an airy open plan living room with 10’ ceilings.  Expansive glass windows have views of trees and the old industrial buildings of Clipper Mill.  Outside is a nice deck. A dining area, and a sleek galley kitchen are on the main floor too, the kitchen with Bosch stainless steel appliances, granite counters and hardwood floors.  Upstairs are three bedrooms and three and a half baths. Downstairs is a large family room, with natural light and another deck. Nothing amazing, except the views, but all very nice. Central air, gas fireplace, one car garage. Realtor says that only eight units are left.  Hmmmm…maybe.
 
Where:  Off the beaten track. Take Union Avenue down the hill from Falls Road, and back up to cross over the Light Rail tracks. Stay straight as it narrows and becomes Clipper Park Road. You’ll pass Woodberry Kitchen on your right. Hang a sharp left just past the Stable onto Woodberry Avenue and up a steep-ish hill.  From here, you can walk to the Light Rail (just 15 minutes to downtown), Woodberry Kitchen and the Jones Falls hiking/biking trail. Good access to I-83, too.  

Why: It’s something different and kind of cool. Snug in your nest, up in the trees, behind walls of glass, with a nice combination of industrial and rural views, you can feel happily superior to your suburban friends, living in so not-green brick boxes. Plus, feeling like you’re supporting the arts community, somehow, just by living here … Plus, chance to be a barfly at Woodberry Kitchen, lounge lizard at the fabulous pool.

Would suit: divorcees, hipsters with a trust-fund, artists–at-heart, environmentally-conscious retirees.

Why Not: Although striking, their modern styling is not that great looking, except at night.  Getting down the hill in snow or ice could be a problem. 

The Union Mill: Courting Baltimore Teachers With Low Cost & High Style

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As you turn off Falls Road in Hampden, heading downhill on Union Avenue towards Meadow Mill and Woodberry Kitchen, it’s hard not to slow down to admire the construction project that is the Union Mill. The mill lies low in a hollow beside the Jones Falls; in the mornings, mist hangs in the air.

A shady and nameless bar across the street seems to be open 24/7, and at odd hours men and women stagger out, light a cigarette, head back in. The setting has an Edward Hopper beauty, and there was a time in my life when living there would have been extremely appealing. Now–too late for me–it will be possible. Over the past year and a half, the Union Mill at 1500 Union Avenue has been the latest project of the Seawall Development Company–turning an abandoned stone factory into a mixed-use building designed and managed specifically for non-profits and teachers– an innovative development concept that looks like a win-win for Baltimore city. 

The History

Built in 1866, the Druid Mill, as it was then called, was, in its heyday, one of several Mt. Vernon mills that used the water from the Jones Falls to make cotton duck, a heavy fabric used in clothing, tents and sails. A plaque on the lintel reads “Mt. Vernon Mill # 4,” in reference to the Clipper, Meadow and Woodberry Mills located nearby. When the mill stopped producing fabric in the 1920’s, the building functioned as a warehouse until it was purchased by the Kramer brothers just after World War II. The Kramers used it as a factory to make toys and accessories for model trains, supplying the then booming hobby business.  Eventually, it fell back into use as a warehouse, and was finally abandoned until just last year, when it was sold to Donald Manekin, a successful Harford County developer. Manekin is a founding partner in the Seawall Development Company, a local business with an interesting history, one that specializes in the burgeoning sector of “socially responsible development.”

Socially responsible development is the idea that building design can impact not only the lives of its residents, but help rehabilitate distressed urban areas.  In the case of Seawall, the concept began with the father-son team of Donald and Thibault Manekin. Don Manekin is the former owner/operator of building giant Manekin Construction, which he sold in 2000. Around the same time as he accepted the unpaid position, offered by his friend Bill Streuver, as CEO of the Baltimore City Public School System. The years he spent there proved to be a turning point in his life, as he says “talking to teachers, and learning about education in Baltimore from the inside-out.” By the time, in 2005, that his son Thibault returned from South Africa–where he had started his own sports-related non-profit enterprise–the two were ready to begin the give-back. The solution combined their experience in construction and development with a real ambition to help a city in need. “It all came out of those conversations with teachers,” Manekin says.

The Mission

Teaching in Baltimore city is by any definition a hard job. Teacher retention rates are low–with less than half of new hires staying more that five years and a third leaving after two–costing the city over $100, 000 for each defection. Many of the young teachers Manikin met expressed a sense of isolation and discouragement due to a variety of factors–moving to a new and unfamiliar city, learning to engage children from distressed environments, and lack of support within the system. With 750 new teachers arriving in Baltimore every year, many of them with Teach for America, and most of them financially strapped, finding affordable housing is yet another challenge. After conducting a series of interviews and surveys with teachers, the Manekins began to translate the results into design elements for a kind of social experiment–buildings that would support teachers by encouraging collaboration and creating a sense of community. The vision was to “roll out the red carpet for teachers,” Manekin says, to improve retention rates and “maybe get them to stay in Baltimore.”

Miller’s Court

In 2007, Donald and Thibault Manekin, together with partner Evan Morville, used a combination of federal and state tax credits, New Market tax credits, enterprise zone credits and private financing to buy and renovate the old Miller Can Factory at 2601 North Howard Street–cost, around $20 million. The resulting building, Miller’s Court, is a mixed residential and commercial space with 40 one, two and three-bedroom affordable apartments for teachers, as well as 35,000 square feet of office space leased at below market rates by education-related non-profits. Six teachers from Teach For America helped design the project. Architect Tom Liebel and his team at Marks, Thomas Architects incorporated many of their ideas into the final plans.

Learning that teachers spend a lot of time in copy shops because often schools don’t have enough copy equipment, a workroom with a high-volume copier became part of the plan. Instead of late night runs to the copy shop, teachers can hang out and chat while using the center. An old loading dock was reconfigured with a fire pit and benches as an outdoor space, the central court is now a bocce court –all with the idea of creating an environment where people with common interests interact with one another, share problems and maybe come up with solutions. The non-profit organizations that support these teachers are right downstairs, and include Catholic Charities, Experience Corps, the Baltimore Urban Debate League and Playworks.

Here, shared training, conference and meeting rooms that can accommodate from two to 100 people greatly reduce the space requirements, and thereby, the cost of operating. Businesses with similar goals are in close proximity to each other. A voice on the phone becomes a face in the hall. Ideas are exchanged. Things, hopefully, get done better and faster. “To the extent that we can make a teacher’s life easier,” says Evan Morville, “that is the mission.”

The good news for the partners in Seawall was that their vision met with success. Six months before completion, the building was completely pre-leased, and there was a waiting list of 400 teachers for future projects. Miller’s Court became the regional headquarters for Teach For America. And as the Manekins hoped, the building is having a ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood. Rehabilitation of the abandoned building, a former neighborhood blight, has inspired nearby buildings to improve their own appearance, and helped to spur investment in the neighborhood. In 2010, fresh from their success at Miller’s Court, the Seawall Development Company went looking for another project, and found it in Hampden–at the Union Mill.

The Union Mill

At 86,000 square feet, a full block long, the Union Mill is gigantic. With its Italianate lines and beautiful stonework, it’s a more architecturally interesting building than Miller’s Court.  Recently re-pointed, the stones stand out clean and strong in walls that are over two-feet-thick. Partner Evan Morville, who is often on-site, credits the artistry of his stonemason, Ron Kemper, with the striking result. “His guys are the best I’ve ever worked with,” he says. The large paned windows have been completely replaced, trim freshly painted, and the back wall of the factory exposed to great effect.

The plan is closely based on the Miller’s Court model. The price tag of around $20 million is about the same. Ditto the financing–a combination of state and federal tax credits and private financing.  The same construction firm, Hamel Builders, and the same architect, Tom Liebel of Marks, Thomas Architects, are on board. 35,000 square feet of the building will be affordable office space, where the non-profits that help to power Baltimore’s urban economy–education, human service and health-related–can work side-by-side, sharing ideas and space, and cutting cost of overhead. Another 50,000 square feet will be residential, with 54 one and two-bedroom apartments, offered at below market rates to teachers. Common spaces, including conference and training rooms, a copy center, a free gym/fitness center, free parking, an outdoor courtyard and a café  (open to the public) in the old boiler room, offer both convenience and economies of scale.  Currently, 90 percent of the office space has been pre-leased to non-profits. Of the 54 apartments, all but seven are rented as of last week. And if there are no one-bedroom units available, Seawall will match two willing sharers together in a two-bedroom.

Seawall is not just a development company, but a management company, which means that there is as least one person, often more, in the buildings all the time, to take care of problems as they occur. So far, according to Morville, everything is running smoothly. Will the Pepsi bottling plant, just 50 yards down the hill be a problem for the residents? Nope–the walls of the factory are thick enough to block the noise, and after all “this is a city.” Any problems with crime and security?  “No problems at all,” says Morville, in fact the neighborhood has been amazingly supportive.  Manekin agrees. “In every way, the Hampden and Woodberry community associations have made this project a success.”  Seawall is so comfortable here in fact, they are moving office headquarters to a large block of space on the ground floor.

On a tour of Union Mill last week, most of the apartments exhibit more of the high style and quality construction you would expect in a top-end condo than subsidized rental apartments (units will rent to teachers for between $700 and $1,200). Each unit features exposed original columns, timber beams, beautiful old wainscoting and true plaster walls, all left as reminders of the original function of the building. The large arched windows of the factory are a striking feature in many. But essentially the apartments are sleek and modern in feeling, with polished concrete floors, glass pendant kitchen lighting, Shaker-style cabinetry and wide louvered blinds at the oversized windows. They’re great looking–a place you’d be proud to come home to at the end of the day.

And did someone say green? Part of Seawall’s mission (and part of the requirement for the historic tax-credit funding) is environmental sustainability. Here, as at Miller’s Court, much has been done to conserve energy resources, above and beyond the obvious environmental benefits of rehabbing an existing site rather than sending it to the landfill.  Energy-efficient windows, check. High-efficiency heating and cooling, check. And insulation—invisible but everywhere. Interestingly, the idea of a communal laundry room Seawall initially included in plans (more environmentally friendly, as people tend to do bigger loads, less frequently) was flat-out rejected by the teachers, who felt that the dorm period of their life was well over. A compelling reminder of the sustainability mission are old machinery and industrial parts from the factory site, which have been reworked by local artists and sculptors from MICA into thought provoking artwork to be placed indoors and outside at the Union Mill.

“We look at real estate as an opportunity to effectuate change,” says Evan Morville, wearing a hard hat and gazing up at the stone building nearing completion.

One change has already happened–an abandoned factory, beautifully refitted for the needs of another century. The more important change, for Baltimore City–a chance at improving the lives of teachers and hopefully, their students–has just begun.

Called to Service? Georgetown Stunner Sets the Tone

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HOT HOUSE: 3053 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20007

In Georgetown, an 1875 Victorian house in a national landmark district, with nine bedrooms, elevator, private garden and 40 foot lap pool: $9,800,000

What: You’ve been given the nod. All that tedious fund-raising has paid off, and now the party/think-tank/consultancy needs you in Washington, D.C., close-at-hand and able to host high-level parties and stuff to impress the foot soldiers, benefactors and celebrity donors. You’re a big personality. A suite at the Watergate won’t do…

This is the place for you: A glamorous dowager empress of a house, standing tall and stately at the corner of 31st and P Street, on Georgetown’s coveted east side.  A jewel in the crown of Georgetown houses, it’s a traditional Victorian mostly, but with a copper Mansard roof that gives it a European aura. French doors in the family room open onto a large terrace overlooking the private garden, adding to the continental charm. Ceilings on the main floor are 13 feet high. The two large drawing rooms are each 28 feet long — you could have cocktails for several hundred people here, without ever feeling crowded. At the same time, the wood paneled library and dining room are perfect for intimate gatherings of like-minded politicos–restrained, yet powerful. The house was once a set for the 1984 film St. Elmo’s Fire and the former owner is the Gatsbyesque Dr. William Haseltine, founder of Human Genome Sciences and seven (!) other successful biotechs. He’s also a philanthropist, a Washington personality and bon vivant. Anyway, from the wine cave to the two bedroom servant’s apartment, this is a house for life-lived-large. Private off-street parking for five to six cars will help. There is a large gym, a spacious master suite with two baths, (seven full and four half-baths in all) as well as the basics of gourmet kitchen (not all that big, but who’s cooking?) hardwood floors throughout, central air, fireplaces.   

Where: 31st and P is on Georgetown’s east side –an easy walk to the Georgetown campus and Dumbarton Oaks.  Nice jogging in Rock Creek Park and the banks of the Potomac. Embassies, shops and restaurants of Georgetown, all right there.

Why: Because your country needs you.

Would suit: Wealthy patron of the arts, intellectual gone over to the business side, business side gone over to government. Michael Bloomberg.

Why Not: No metro in Georgetown (still!), so you’ll have to take a limo over to the White House. Also, with the lap pool, the lot’s too small (.22 acres) for a swing set.

P.S.: Buy it furnished — it’s worth a try.  

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