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Will the Station North Arts District Paint a Brighter Future for Midtown?

Christopher Myers
On a Clear Day: From the roof of the Cork Factory artist co-op, resident Dennis Livingston looks over the neighborhoods that may be shaped by the Station North Arts District. "It's kind of like pandora's box," he says. "Once you open it, redevelopment is going to start happening."
The Full Upgrade: Charles Lankford (right), pictured with associate Mike Ash, says he bought the copy cat building in 1983 for $200,000 and has spent another $750,000 to retool it for artists' residences and studios.
Absolut Crosse: In the eyes of Station North boosters, artist and recent Baltimore transplant Roy Crosse (right) is a poster boy for the district's potential, and its abandonded rowhouses (below) are merely works in progress.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 7/30/2003

"Spectacular" succinctly sums up the view from the silver-toned rooftop of midtown's Cork Factory, a red brick, 19th-century building turned artist loft co-op. The stout Victorian rises six stories above the 1600 block of Guilford Ave. Southward, downtown's phalanx of office towers challenges the early afternoon sky. To the north, the city rolls away gently into a leafy, blue-hazed horizon.

Two neighborhoods lie in the Cork's immediate foreground: Charles North to the west of North Calvert Street, and Greenmount West to the east of Calvert. Looking west from the factory building's rooftop, you see traffic sweeping up and over the newly reopened Charles Street bridge and into the 1700 block of North Charles, where the Charles Theatre cineplex, the Everyman Theatre, and the trendy Tapas Teatro restaurant, together with the stalwart Club Charles and its companion eatery, the Zodiac, have brought new life, energy, and prosperity to the area.

It is a very different view from the one you see looking north and east, into Greenmount West. When viewed from on high between gaps in the summer foliage, the neighborhood looks quite handsome: trim alley houses fronting brick-paved streets, with classic three story rowhouses lining the larger cross streets. But the summery greenery obscures scores of abandoned buildings and other scars of urban decay. And what you can't see from above is graphically revealed in black-and-white census figures for the majority-African-American neighborhood. Only 17 percent of the residences are owner-occupied, while more than 35 percent of the housing units are vacant. More than 40 percent of Greenmount West households earn less than $10,000 a year, with half the families eking out an existence.

The two Baltimore neighborhoods are united by more than the common boundary of North Calvert. Charles North and Greenmount West now constitute the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. State legislation passed two years ago this month allows for the creation of six such arts districts statewide each year. Official arts-district designation provides tax incentives for artists (and real-estate developers targeting artists) designed to lure painters, sculptors, writers, theater companies, musicians and others involved in the business of being creative to live, work, and sell within the area. Providence, R.I., is credited with pioneering the concept in 1996. There, such a district is widely recognized for cleaning up and reinvigorating a decaying stretch of the city's downtown. Maryland's legislation was more or less a rubber stamp of the Providence paperwork.

But there is another view of the new Arts District just as telling as the vantage from the roof of the Cork Factory. It is found on city-produced maps of what is now known familiarly as Station North. On these maps, the already on-the-rise Charles North neighborhood is labeled the "Front Zone" and "Retail Center." City Council Bill 03-1143, introduced June 9 and receiving Planning Commission approval July 17, calls for giving the city authority to use condemnation powers as a means to acquire 24 vacant or underutilized properties in and around the Charles Street corridor, including such landmarks as the long-shuttered Chesapeake Restaurant at Charles and Lafayette Avenue and North Avenue's looming Parkway Theatre. If everything stays on track, bill proponents say the building's current owners have six to eight months to come up with credible finance and development plans of their own, or risk having their holdings bought by the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. and offered up for redevelopment by others. While too early to figure what the city's cash outlay might be in such a scenario, it could easily add up to a seven-figure investment.

It's a different story for Greenmount West. The words creation zone (residential & studio opportunity) are imprinted on the district map for the neighborhood. No such municipal cash infusion is in the works here.

But in a way, Arts District designation is an afterthought for Greenmount West. The Cork Factory is but one of a collection of erstwhile industrial buildings on the neighborhood's southern edge that has been filling up with artists since the 1980s. And recent city zoning changes have not only legitimized this trend but paved the way for it to grow.

There's a bromide in the urban-renewal business that describes artists as "the shock troops of gentrification." The conventional wisdom suggests that artists, concerned primarily with cheap and sizable spaces to live and create, will overlook urban ills and lack of creature comforts when choosing a home. Poor people and battered buildings don't faze them. If sufficient numbers of creative types colonize a downtrodden area, a bohemian beachhead is formed that attracts moneyed nonartisans--and eventually real estate developers--who engender a socioeconomic transformation. Of course, the second part of the story goes like this: rents go up, trendy shops and eateries replace grass-roots galleries and coffeehouses, and the pioneering artists are soon priced out the community, along with the indigenous residents who are swept aside as their community goes from ghetto to gold coast.

So is "SoHo-ization" coming to these hardscrabble blocks of East Baltimore? Cynical eyes might make some pertinent observations: Midtown Baltimore is not Manhattan. The hot-rod economy of the 1990s is now up on blocks, and cities from Orlando, Fla., to Hartford, Conn., to Dallas are carving out arts districts of their own in the hope of dipping into what is likely becoming an increasingly overfished pool of artists. (And Baltimore just gained its second state Arts District--the 358-acre Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District.) These pessimists might conclude that after the initial hoopla wanes, and a few artists take advantages of the district's perks, the welcome to the station north arts district banners may simply fade and fall, as the city moves on to the next fix-it-up scheme.

But Greenmount West residents report a curious upturn in unsolicited offers to buy their homes. Charles North resident and acting executive director of Midtown Benefits District Charles Smith likens the area's untapped potential--from housing stock to location--to "a dam ready to burst." But if the dam bursts for Greenmount West, bringing in a flood of investment and new residents, can the resulting torrent be channeled in such a way as to lift all boats--artists, natives, and newcomers alike?

Cork Factory resident and community activist Dennis Livingston feels that there are two ways to go about changing a poor community. "One way is to get rid of the poverty," he asserts, "The other is to get rid of the people." Livingston and others are looking to find ways to assure that the former technique comes to bear on Greenmount West, not the latter. But he acknowledges it won't be easy.

"It's hard to stop people from coming and doing only the development you're looking for," Smith says. "It's sort of like Pandora's box--once you open it, redevelopment is going to start happening."

Artist, editor, and adjunct Towson University arts instructor David Crandall didn't think Station North had a chance to be selected the city's first Arts District back in December 2001. And he felt this way even as he helped pen the application proposal that ultimately got the area the nod over six other city neighborhoods vying for the prize. (Each Maryland county or municipality gets to nominate one area for district designation each year; the state has the final call.)

"When I first heard about [the concept] I thought it was aimed right at the Creative Alliance," Crandall says, referring to the powerful and politically savvy Highlandtown-based arts organization.

Nevertheless, Crandall--then living in the Copy Cat building--was intrigued enough to start getting together a variety of folks in the Charles North/Greenmount West neighborhoods to discuss applying. If nothing else, Crandall figured, some intercommunity bridges would be built and the area strengthened to vie for designation in the coming years. When setting out to define the would-be district's boundaries, Crandall and company simply combined the borders of Charles North and Greenmount West. This worked out to just about 100-acres, and the enabling State legislation preferred districts this size or smaller. The tax benefits--the details of which hadn't been completely ironed out before the debut selection process--were not a big inducement to prepare an application.

"We were seeking recognition as much as anything," Crandall says. "The real benefits come from official recognition that artists have something of value to offer."

The competing neighborhoods--which included Hollins Market, Reservoir Hill, and Pigtown--presented both written proposals and oral presentations to the city in October 2001. Only one could be passed on to the state, and Station North won the honor.

Kirby Fowler, a land-use attorney who chairs the all-volunteer Mayor's Advisory Board for the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, served on the city's district selection committee. He says Station North got the nod because of its existing strengths: affordable housing, the growing buzz around the Charles Theatre, and the goodly number of artists already living and working there.

"This area also seems to be really in the middle of some healthier areas, and with the right amount of dedication to improving it the market might be able to take over," Fowler says. But he's quick to add that wholesale gentrification--with artists leading the assault--was never the concept's endgame.

"'Gentrification without displacement' is the term we've been using," he says. "Gentrification is not per se a bad thing, if you define it as trying to improve an area and draw more people in. It can be a bad thing if it means displacing current residents who've lived in an area their whole lives and want to stay. We want to be able to balance the two."

This is not the first time the city has considering using artists as a redevelopment tool. Beginning back in 1995, plans emerged to turn a boarded-up strip of Howard Street's downtown commercial buildings into artist housing, converting the tired stretch into an "Avenue of Arts." The idea was borne along by the Baltimore Development Corp., but after years of eager chatter the redevelopment died for lack of funding.

A self-styled example of the artists-as-shock-troops concept began in the late 1980s, when artists--without city assistance or prodding--began moving into the largely vacant buildings around Hollins Market. The neighborhood soon picked up the moniker Sowebo, and restaurants and coffeehouses followed the artistic influx. But the concept eventually withered, thanks to city indifference, a single greedy developer whose sloppy rehab work ended up turning off buyers, and a rising tide of urban ills.

This time the government is dangling certain financial "carrots" before the artistic world in the hopes of assembling them in a specific locale. Effective this tax year, artists who live and work in the Charles North district can subtract any income derived from artistic works (paintings, plays, songs, etc.) created and sold within the district on their state income tax forms. There's a 10-year property tax credit for property owners who redevelop commercial or industrial buildings for an arts-related use--artist housing, gallery space, dance studio, etc. (Residential properties so converted don't qualify for this perk, so it's no help for Greenmount West's rowhouses.) Businesses offering entertainment in the district are exempt from paying any admissions and amusement tax--10 percent of gross receipts elsewhere in Baltimore. (The Charles Theatre takes advantage of this exemption; nonprofit performing-arts outfits, like the Everyman Theatre, are already exempt from this tax.)

It's perhaps too soon to say how many artists will take advantage of these bennies, or how enticing they will be. "None of these things are outright gifts to folks," Fowler says. "But everything helps."

Charles Lankford didn't set out to be the city's largest artist landlord when he bought Greenmount West's 165,000-square-foot Copy Cat building in 1983. Though named after a billboard for the Copy Cat printing company that long bedecked the place, the looming brick complex at 1501 Guilford Ave. started out in the 1890s as the home of the Crown Cork and Seal Co. At the time, Lankford was running a computer company out of a rented chunk of the building, alongside a host of other industrial tenants. He bought the pile (for around $500,000, he recalls) to protect the numerous business-related infrastructure investments he'd made.

But as the 1980s wore on, the building's industrial users started either folding up or moving out of the city (as Lankford's firm eventually did--driven to the county for tax reasons, he says). "We were losing tenants and we couldn't find replacements," Lankford says. "We ended up building seven art studios as a test on the fifth floor."

About this same time, just a block away, ceramic artist Bob Levine plunked down about $400 a month to rent some 3,200 square feet of studio space in what's now called the Cork Factory building (a nod to Crown Cork and Seal, which also erected it). It was largely filled with commercial printing operations, and Levine was its first artist. As it happened, the industry-out, artist-in migration carried on apace. Most of the creative newcomers, like Levine, not only made art in their spaces but lived in them as well. Soon enough, both buildings were full of resident artists. There was only one problem: It was all against the law.

Lankford says he never hid the fact that folks were living in his building, but by the late 1990s both the city Department of Housing and the Fire Department were none too keen on this zone-defying reuse. Unfortunately, Lankford had little option to take his operation aboveboard.

"There wasn't any legal way to make [the property] residential back then," Lankford says. "There was nothing in Baltimore City Code to allow you go from industrial zoning to residential."

In 1997, the Cork Factory's collection of resident artists bought their building for $200,000. They, too, needed a zoning change to legitimately reside in their new purchase.

The answer came in the form of a Planned Unit Development--or PUD--ordinance that went into effect this year. Covering the bulk of Greenmount West's industrial buildings, it allows for them to contain a mixture of commercial and residential uses. The PUD's particulars were worked out by area property owners and a city planner. Many feel the Arts District designation smoothed the way for passage of the ordinance. Or, as Levine sees it, "We couldn't have an Arts District, only to have the city come in and close our buildings down."

But the PUD only makes residential usage of the buildings a zoning possibility. Making live-in studios a legal reality requires infrastructure and safety upgrades. At the Copy Cat building this has meant replacing some 5,000 sprinkler heads, updating the fire-alarm system, installing new fire doors, venting all interior bathrooms, and other improvements. Lankford--who also owns a second, smaller artist-filled industrial building in the area--says he has already spent more than $750,000 upgrading his properties, and the mandated improvements continue. His artist tenants will be safer--but also poorer--as a result.

"Rents are going up because we have to recoup the money we've spent," Lankford says. "But we're not going to change our tenant base. We still want to cater to the artist crowd, and that ranges from students--where two to three people share a space--to recent graduates to art-school teachers."

The area's newest industry-to-art conversion is occurring just around the corner at 405 East Oliver St., where a handful of artists bought a four-story, 66,000-square-foot erstwhile brewery for $170,000 last spring. They've already carved a 3,200-square-foot gallery--dubbed Area 405--out of a chunk of building's first floor. Studio space has been created as well, and the owners themselves hope to be living in the building by fall.

"Everyone wants to compare us to SoHo," says 35-year-old sculptor Jim Vose, one of the buildings co-owners. "But SoHo really happened for a lot of different reasons."

"The artist-as-shock-troop concept still holds true in some degree, but perhaps not as much as when the first examples of it appeared," adds fellow building co-owner and artist/writer Monika Graves. "And perhaps not so much in Baltimore."

Vose figures they are two to three years away from having the building fully occupied by artists, anticipating that they will start creating the first rental live/work spaces in the upper floors by next year. He notes that the district's property tax easement "might be of some use down the road." So far none of the artist-owners involved regret the decision to buy into Greenmount West.

"We get along great with neighbors across the street," Vose says. "We both have similar goals. We'd like the neighborhood to be better, but not too good--because if it does get gentrified, it's not just the local residents that could get pushed out but us as well."

"While we don't want gentrification, it would be nice to go to a corner store that didn't have to have bulletproof glass," Graves adds. "It would be nice to see people enjoy their neighborhood and have their kids run around without fear."

Crime is, of course, another major stumbling block to any revival of Greenmount West. Gentrification will not happen, as one artist put it, "until the gentry feels safe." Levine says things have already gotten better in the immediate vicinity of the old industrial loft buildings, though. Back when the buildings were either largely vacant or filled with industries that went dark in evenings, he says, "it was like the Wild West, with huge amounts of violence and gunfire." The artists' increased presence has helped quiet things down, but safety issues linger. "We all have acquaintances who are very nervous about even driving through these neighborhoods," Graves says.

In the long run, Lankford says he just doesn't see Greenmount West developing into the next "hot" neighborhood. "I think Baltimore is unique in that we've got something called the waterfront," he says. "I think all the high-end stuff is going there--to places like Canton."

There is evidence that his area is beginning to show up on developers' radar, however. Lankford says he used to field maybe three queries a year from people wondering if his building was for sale. "Just in the past year I've probably had 15 people call and ask about buying the building," he says. Now there's word that some local developers are interested in buying the long-empty former Lebow Clothing factory building immediately behind the Copy Cat, likely for a mixed-use project. ("There is some interest in the building," Fowler confirms. "Though it's probably too early to talk more about it.")

"There are still a lot of ifs, ands, or buts over what's going to happen here," Vose concludes. "There are still a lot of question marks. But for the most part things are happening slowly. We just want to be living and working here. That would be a good start."

Jean Joyner grew up on the 1600 block of Latrobe Street, and the retired state employee rents a house next to her now-boarded-up childhood home.

"Artists?" she says when asked about the Arts District designation. "They're over there." She motions to the loft buildings looming over her tiny street. Seems she wasn't aware that her entire neighborhood is now a designated Arts District or that it's been labeled a "studio opportunity." If she isn't caught up with current-day neighborhood happenings, she's quite knowledgeable about how things were in the past.

"There was a time when this neighborhood wanted for nothing," she says, recalling how back in the 1950s her stretch of Latrobe used to win a newspaper-sponsored "cleanest block award." The factories to the south were functioning then, and a 5 p.m. whistle would send homebound workers flooding into the neighborhood. Now she sums up the neighborhood's challenges with two words: "Rats and trash." And as for its potential to thrive anew? "I don't think it can ever happen," she deadpans.

While this impoverished neighborhood is beset with its share of decay and drug dealing (strange faces are often assumed to be cops by dealer lookouts, setting off youthful chants of "5-O! 5-O!"), it is also interlaced with a network of familial connections. Many generations of the same family live in close proximity, often with parents or grandparents owning a house, and their children and grandchildren renting nearby. The neighborhood's relative isolation--tucked next to Greenmount Cemetery and just above the Jones Falls valley--likely contributes to this close-knit climate. (And some feel this isolation makes the neighborhood a better candidate for reform than, say, Sowebo, which is orphaned in the middle of the troubled west side.)

Thirty-nine-year-old East Baltimore native Kiki Scott has lived in Greenmount West for nine years. He's heard about the Arts District designation, and fears it might serve as a smoke screen for house-snatching speculators. He figures there are plenty of working renters in Greenmount West who would purchase houses in the area with proper education about the possibilities and benefits--providing the prices stay low.

"I'm afraid of seeing the houses being offered to the wrong people," Scott says. "It seems they want to change the neighborhood by pushing us out. But if they really want to make it a better community, they should let folks who have lived here for years have a chance to buy before they're priced out."

Scott has no problem with artists moving in. "It would be good to have people of different backgrounds moving into the neighborhood," he says. "It's the developers I worry about."

And what developers might these be? That's just what Louise Johnson wants to know. The lifelong Greenmount West resident owns her house in the 400 block of Pitman Place. For the past couple of years, she says, an increasing number of outsiders have been saddling down her narrow street looking for property.

"I might be standing in the doorway, and somebody will drive by and ask me if I want to sell my house," she says. "And they're not telling me why they want to buy it."

A neighbor, who ducks away before identifying herself, has her own terse theory: "White folks want the city back," she says. "They all moved to suburbs, and now they're tired of driving all that way to go to work."

State real-estate records available online show no denotable uptick in homes sales or home prices in Greenmount West--certainly nothing indicating there's a run on neighborhood properties. But this provides no comfort for Dennis Livingston, an artist, union carpenter, freelance housing-issues consultant, and community organizer who's lived in the Cork Factory building for three years. "By the time that starts happening it's too late," he says.

Livingston moved to Baltimore in 1970, and has lived in Fells Point and South Baltimore. (He also spent time in Washington's Dupont Circle.) In each, he's seen socioeconomic changes sweep through, leaving high rents and ethnic, cultural, and economic homogenization in their wake. And he feels his latest neighborhood could be next.

"The city has totally ignored this community--just totally abandoned it," Livingston says. "And yet it has enormous potential." So much potential, he feels, that there's a "complete threat" that gentrification is in the offing. But he says it's not the growing presence of artists that could fuel this change, so much as the proximity of Penn Station.

"This is the only community on the entire Amtrak line from Boston to Richmond that isn't extremely expensive--where there is still affordable housing," he says.

And as to his fellow artists? When it comes to stabilizing the neighborhood, he asserts they're no substitute for the employment-offering industrial outfits that once occupied the loft buildings.

"The arts can never be an economic base or engine," Livingston says. "They can be part of the economic base. They can create a more desirable atmosphere. They can draw in different kinds of people. But they can't be an economic foundation. The money is too marginal. What percentage of artists can make a living at it, yet alone distribute wealth?"

Livingston is on the board of the Greenmount West Community Development Corp., a grass-roots organization unaffiliated with the Arts District that aims to take a hands-on role in shaping the neighborhood's future. "If any kind of economic development goes on here, we want maximum local participation," Livingston says. The group is currently encouraging local homeowners not to sell out to the first developer/speculator who comes sniffing around. With funds from foundation grants and corporate donations (a pair of Washington-based developers working on a Calvert Street property under the name Penn North Lofts recently gave the group $20,000), they hope to begin acquiring and stabilizing groups of vacant houses with an eye toward making them available to neighborhood residents (perhaps to some of the renters Scott alluded to). The group is also encouraging--and hopes to assist--area homeowners to acquire and rehab additional neighborhood properties.

"It's not that there's a particular group of people that we don't want here," Livingston says. "It's just that we don't want any group of people exclusively. We don't want it to be all very low-income here either. We think a mix is better. We'd be delighted to have artists move in and fix up abandoned houses. What we don't want to see is rental-property owners throwing people out because they feel they can get top dollar for their properties now."

The 300 and 400 blocks of East Oliver Street are usually pretty sleepy after dark, but this evening parked cars line the strip and clusters of chattering pedestrians stroll the weed-sprouting sidewalks. Seems there's going to be a healthy turnout for the Area 405 opening of the Constants and Variables art show.

Featured at the July 18 opening are a pair of sprawling sculptural works by John Penny and Marc Ganzglass. Penny's untitled work is comprised of eight, seemingly identically bent and perforated sheets of galvanized metal. Ganzglass' effort is an assemblage of concrete cubes connected to plumb-bob lines. They are the sort of esoteric cerebral installations likely to draw shrugs from those not schooled in the academic vernacular the contemporary arts scene demands. Most of the youngish crowd is clustered around the buck-a-beer bar and the DJ spinning tunes.

Twenty-four-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art student Jason Hughes curated the exhibit. Though it is his first solo curatorial effort, it's not his first arts effort in Greenmount West. He participated in last February's Door and Windows Project, wherein artists installed mixed-media artworks in the doors and windows of Greenmount West's all-too-plentiful vacant buildings. It was perhaps the artist community's most overt "we're here" action in this neighborhood, far from the lights and bustle beneath the Charles Theatre marquee. Hughes says the foray into the hinterlands went well. "Most people we met were very curious about it," he says, adding that the event was accompanied by an artist-led community cleanup in which many locals pitched in.

Also in attendance at the Constants and Variables opening is Roy Crosse, who in the eyes of Station North boosters is tantamount to a poster boy for the district's potential. Trinidad-born Crosse, whose voice still carries a slight island lilt, is a widely respected and award-winning painter/sculptor who's enjoyed international exhibitions of his work. (If this is any kind valuation, he was commissioned to create an "Absolut Crosse" artwork for use in one of the Swedish distiller's signature print ads.) Last summer he moved into the district, buying a rowhouse at 106 W. North Ave., where's been living and working ever since.

He calls his landing in Baltimore "a happy accident." A three-fold rent increase drove him from his Newark, N.J., studio and into looking for a new home somewhere else on the East Coast. A real-estate agent steered him to Baltimore and the Arts District, though he says the tax incentives "were not a compelling factor" in his decision to buy on North Avenue. Though initially looking for an industrial building, he found the rangy, 4,800-square-foot Victorian house met his needs just fine. (And whatever urban unpleasantries North Avenue brings are of little concern to him: "I've lived in places that make North Avenue look like Disneyland," he says.) Geographically well-placed Baltimore, he says, has the potential to be a "real magnet" for artists.

The rent squeeze that tossed him out of Newark is nothing new to this 57-year-old art-world veteran, who says he has been financially expelled "over and over again" from rented studio spaces--from Toronto to New York to Boston. Often art-engendered gentrification is the root cause for the rising rents.

And with this kind of experience under his belt, what is his prognosis for Station North?

"I have a sense that the district's authorities are of aware of that kind of history," he says. "There appears to be a great deal of focus and energy spent figuring out ways to see that it doesn't go that way. The key is to get the local population involved to secure ways that they can stay . . . but it is a challenge."

David Crandall, who's since moved from the Art District he helped secure, says he has a "cockeyed optimism" that the designation will work out to the benefit of all concerned. He distills down his hopes for Station North not in terms of what the area's socioeconomic makeup might be 10 years down the road, but in the form of mythical day-trip visitors to Baltimore emerging from Penn Station. They can turn south, he says, and see "the Walters, the Lyric, the Baltimore Symphony--the big institutions." Or, they can turn northward, "and see something different, unusual, kinky, cutting-edge, avant-garde."

"I'm not sure if it will work out that way," he says. "But that's how I picture it."

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