A Baltimore Tin Can Plant Transformed into a Community Hub

In the first of five site visits, the Bruner Foundation drops in on a factory-turned-mixed-use development in downtown Baltimore.

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland.

Courtesy Billy Michels

This month, our Bruner Foundation team hit the road for site visits to the five 2015 Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence finalists in Baltimore, Olympia, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, and Greenville. We’ll spend two to three days at each place, gathering project information, conducting interviews and taking photographs. Our investigations will culminate with the sharing of our findings with our selection committee at its June meeting in Little Rock, AR, where the Gold Medalist and four Silver Medalists will be determined.

Our first stop was Miller’s Court in Baltimore, the renovation of a vacant, historic tin can manufacturing building into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused nonprofits. Located about 2.5 miles north of downtown at the edge of Charles Village and Remington, a socially, economically, and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, it was completed in 2009.

The renovation has turned a vacant eyesore into a beacon for the community.

Courtesy Seawall Development Company (before) and Billy Michels (after)

Miller’s Court was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company, a small, socially-minded, mission-oriented business. Aware of the challenges facing the Baltimore school system and professionals entering the field through programs like Teach for America, co-founders Donald and Thibault Manekin sought to build a safe, welcoming community for teachers and a home for allied nonprofits that would strengthen the neighborhood and local economy.

Seawall, along with Marks, Thomas Architects, pursued a collaborative, iterative design approach to Miller’s Court that included focus group meetings with teachers and local residents to inform the building’s program and development process. The resulting LEED Gold certified complex includes 40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors. A Teacher Resource Center provides copiers for printing class materials and includes a lending library. Charmington’s, a cooperatively owned independent café in the building, has become a popular gathering spot for teachers, tenants, and the community, recently hosting a visit from President Obama.

Apartments feature contemporary, loft-like interiors.

Courtesy Seawall Development Company

Charmington’s Café is a gathering spot for building tenants and the community.

Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Interaction is a key component of life and work in Miller’s Court. Networking and information sharing among its residents—fueled by the presence of Teach for America and other education, youth, and community-service focused non-profit tenants—fosters increased resources and new opportunities. Monthly brown bag lunches featuring guest speakers help promote connections among the inherent nonprofits and with the broader community. The complex’s central, landscaped courtyard offers outdoor space for informal gatherings and community events. Public areas feature artwork made by students from the nearby Maryland Institute College of Art with materials salvaged during the construction process.

Education-focused nonprofit tenants like Teach for America occupy collaborative office space.

Courtesy Bruner Foundation

The $21.1 million Miller’s Court development was financed with historic and New Market Tax Credits, a federal program that promotes private investment in low-income communities, with funding from Enterprise Community Investment (which submitted the application) and SunTrust Bank. A $300-$600 discount on the monthly rental rate for apartments is offered to teaching professionals.

The award-winning project has generated additional investment in the community of Remington as well interest from other cities. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore City Public School teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward home purchases there, and several have been bought by former Miller’s Court residents.

Near Miller’s Court, the renovated row houses of Miller’s Square are attracting new homebuyers.

Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Other nearby properties that support the community include a former tire shop that is home to two nonprofit theater organizations and a butcher shop and restaurant offering locally sourced meat and food products. Seawall has also developed Union Mill, a local initiative similar to Miller’s Court, and is currently working with Enterprise and other partners to extend its “Center for Educational Excellence” community-building model to ten other cities.

The Miller’s Court building links the neighborhoods of Charles Village and Remington.

Courtesy Bruner Foundation

Next, the Bruner Foundation team will head to the Pacific Northwest to visit Quixote Village, a community of 30 tiny houses that provides permanent, supportive housing for chronically homeless adults in Olympia.

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Anne-Marie Lubenau, AIA, is director of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) for the Bruner Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An architect and advocate for educating and engaging people in design of the built environment, she is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and was a 2012 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

This post is part of a series written and curated by RBA that focuses on advancing the conversation about placemaking in American cities. The blog offers a detailed look at the 2015 award selection process and site visits, winners’ case studies, highlights from events such as the Bruner-Loeb Forum, and broader observations.  

Categories: Livable Cities, Preservation

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