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.

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