Made in Baltimore: Finding the Perfect Property

Once we had set up the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, we had decided that Open Works would be one of two initial projects, It was time to hunt for the right property for Open Works, our makerspace initiative. This can be one of the most fun – and most frustrating – parts of the development process. As an old architecture student and carpenter, I loved poking around old buildings. On the other hand, every property has both flaws and features, and more often than not the cost of the flaws quickly torpedoed the potential.

First, we had to narrow the search down from Baltimore as a whole to a workable region. The old truism about real estate – location, location, location – holds as true for makerspaces as anything else. We needed to be accessible to users and close to the creative communities that make our city an artistic powerhouse. The state of Maryland has 22 designated arts and entertainment districts, designed to foster economic development by offering property and sales tax incentives arts-related businesses. Baltimore is home to three: Bromo-Seltzer, Highlandtown, and Station North.

The Station North Arts and Entertainment District (SNAED), just north of the train station, is right in the middle of the city. Besides the tax incentives, SNAED had a couple of advantages for a creative social enterprise like Open Works:

  • Access to transit: the Amtrak line to Philly, New York, and D.C. runs right through Station North, accompanied by the crossroads of three major intra-city bus lines, a north-south cycle artery, and ample street parking.
  • Proximity to universities: SNAED is bounded by Johns Hopkins University to the north, Maryland Institute College of Art to the west, and the University of Baltimore to the south, providing a steady flow of creative young people to the area.
  • Availability of industrial property: the heart of the arts district is the former Crown Cork and Seal complex, where the bottle cap was invented and went into mass production at the turn of the 20th century. Some of those grand old factories have been transformed into new uses ranging from a design magnet high school to artist housing. However, there was also still significant industrial vacancy right in the middle of the city, a rare opportunity.
  • Proximity to need: Station North encompasses all or part of 3 neighborhoods that have faced significant disinvestment in schools and infrastructure over the last sixty years. As a platform for grassroots economic development, we wanted to locate in an area where folks would use Open Works to greatest advantage for self-empowerment.

In parallel with narrowing down the location, we had to determine the features of a property we couldn’t live without. Makerspaces are complex, mixed-use buildings, and some characteristics are more important than others. Setting aside cost for the moment (often the most important factor), our dream building had to have the following:

  • Minimum size: our research showed the average makerspace size divided by the membership base equaled about 85 S.F. per member, or 9,500 S.F. Since we wanted to serve a large membership, and marginal costs per square foot declined as you went bigger, 10,000 S.F. seemed like a logical minimum size.
  • Flat, ground-level floor: it would be most ideal to have the building be all on one flat level at grade so we could move heavy materials in and out, provide easy handicapped access, and reduce build-out costs.
  • Solid structure: to support equipment, materials, and delivery trucks, we needed a slab-on-grade or reinforced concrete structure.
  • Industrial zoning: to support light-industrial micro-manufacturing, equipment needs to be vented, dust needs to be collected, and noise can be an issue. Residential-zoned property was out of the question and most commercial zoning wouldn’t support all of our potential uses.
  • Transit and density: to make access easier for our users, we needed to have as much parking as practical and be close to major transit routes. Second, we aimed for density, locating within walking distance of almost 300 units of artist housing.
  • Ownership opportunity: our research into other makerspaces concluded that renting space was often unsustainable because properties needed a lot of capital improvement to convert them to makerspace use and tenants were then at the whim of landlords. We wanted a property we could control so Open Works would remain a community resource well into the future, no matter what happened with surrounding development.

Before looking into any property, it’s best to hook up with a broker. They can guide your search, help you with the due process behind inspecting and purchasing a property, and their commission typically comes out of the seller’s profit, not the buyer’s cost. They may also be able to access industry-only listings that don’t appear on sites like LoopNet or City Feet.

The first property we looked at was an old bank in the heart of central Baltimore, where major roads and bus lines cross. The building itself was beautiful, set in an ample parking lot. However, it was cut into two levels, and just squeaked above the 10,000 S.F. mark. As it turned out, the owner was only interested in leasing, not selling, so we moved on.

Our second shot was even better – 15,000 S.F., all one level, open floor plan, good roof, and two loading docks. It would have been easy to adapt with a minimum of intervention. On the downside, there was only street parking and no room to expand within the property line. The asking price turned out to be too high, so we took a look further down the street.

The third candidate property was a former factory for industrial rollers and stamping equipment. It clocked in at about 13,000 S.F. and was of handsome, Victorian-era brick construction. Inside, it was cut into multiple levels, which would have required a lot of ramping and partitions. We took a serious look, however, going so far as to pay for property inspection, preliminary design sketches, and rough construction budgeting. In the end, the age of the property and the peculiarity of the floor plan made it too expensive to redevelop.

Finally, after ten months of poking around, we finally found a great building — a 34,000 S.F. warehouse built in 1920 as a distribution center by the Railway Express Company. After a long stint as an ice cream manufacturing facility it had been acquired by a church. There were two levels: an upstairs, which held the remnants of a vacant thrift store, and a downstairs, which held a food bank that the church planned to relocate.

Dug into a hill beside Greenmount Avenue, both levels had access to grade, including a full loading dock on the lower floor. The structure was reinforced concrete, the roof was relatively new, there was room for 20 parking spots, and the asking price was reasonable. And it just squeezed into the southeastern boundary of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, granting our future members tax breaks on their work.

On the downside, the floors on both levels were significantly sloped. There was also some brownfield contamination in the yard and asbestos in the boilers. But, given all the great features of the place, these were drawbacks we could deal with. With building in hand, we needed to figure out what to put in it!

Next week we’ll discuss how we found some of our potential users and partners in town and solicited their input to design the perfect makerspace.