On June 28th, CBP chair, Fred Lazarus IV and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake went to the podium in Brentwood Commons and later (along with Bernard C. “Jack” Young, President of the City Council, Joseph McNeely, CBP Executive Director, Carl Stokes, City Councilman, and Dale Hargrave and Lowell Larsson of the North Greenmount West Community Association), dedicated the new statue by Jim Hillmann pictured above.
The topic of Fred Lazarus IV’s speech was the working relationship between the Central Baltimore Partnership and the Mayor’s office in redeveloping Central Baltimore. It’s safe to say that on that beautiful June afternoon, most Baltimoreans were blissfully unaware of the herculean extent of these efforts. And in all likelihood, they were even unfamiliar with the name of the organization that Lazarus IV helped found in 2006 (and has chaired since 2008), ’the Central Baltimore Partnership.’
On the other hand, it would be difficult to find a person in Central Baltimore, or anywhere in the City, who wasn’t aware of some of the projects the Partnership has been involved in. In fact, there are probably few Baltimoreans who have not seen (at least) one first hand. The creation of the Baltimore Design School, the Open Walls mural projects, Penn Station’s plaza and new redevelopment plans, the City Arts building, the restoration of the Chesapeake Restaurant, the ongoing redevelopment of both the Centre and Parkway theaters, are just a few of, the dozens and dozens of, projects the organization has been involved in.
There’s also a lot more in the pipeline. Just last October, the Central Baltimore Partnership received $1.485 million in funds for 12 projects through the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative. And more recently, the Partnership announced its HCPI Spruce-Up grants. These grants administered by CBP (which are for small neighborhood projects) awarded a total of $258,000 dollars in 2014, courtesy of the program’s three sponsors: Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative in the State of Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Aside from a certain reticence, on the part of institution, and the man who runs it, Executive Director Joseph McNeely, the Partnership’s story has been largely untold because it’s complicated. The Central Baltimore Partnership is not a community development corporation, a community association, a social service organization, an arm of government, a private developer – or a community organization run by a church, educational, or cultural, institution.
“The Central Baltimore Partnership is an organization that works with those types of groups and more,” says McNeely. “For instance, a lot of retailers and restaurateurs in the area have become partners. If you’re an organization interested in the renaissance of Central Baltimore, we are happy to have you aboard.”
So how does the Partnership work towards the “renaissance of Central Baltimore,” without being one of the aforementioned types of organizations? “We are stage managers. If you go see a show, the only time you notice a stage manager is when they’ve slipped up. If we get a lot of attention for a specific project, we’ve done something wrong. It’s our partners who are the principal players. They’re the ones who deserve the applause,” according to McNeely.
But it could be argued that the show does not go on without a stage manager, and with a big show, you need a highly skilled one, who has an intricate knowledge of all the aspects of the stage: from props to costume changes, to lighting and sound cues. Likewise, the Partnership has expertise in a lot of areas. In addition to being the catalyst for the redevelopment of buildings and spaces, it is active in workforce development and advocates for neighborhoods that have been overburdened with a disproportionate share of facilities for city-wide problems, such as drug rehabilitation clinics.
McNeely has a different take however. “We do have expertise in a lot of areas. But frankly, if something needs to be addressed, we take it on whether we have the expertise, or not. If it’s something we haven’t tackled before, we reach out to partners who have the experience, so we can get up to speed. If it’s something we do have expertise on, but someone else is handling it, we step back. That’s the nature of the organization.”
Though it may seem paradoxical for an organization that has done so much under the radar, openness is another thing that is in the nature of Central Baltimore Partnership. “Our game plan is online,” notes McNeely. He is referring to the manifesto titled the Homewood Community Partners Initiative, a Call to Action, a document that has been produced by CBP partner Johns Hopkins University (Office of the President), and was prepared by McNeely himself after extensive community input and approval. “It’s quite detailed,” notes McNeely, “about 100 pages in length and it’s available for anyone to read. “
But if the HCPI agenda is the game plan, there is no set playbook. When the Central Baltimore Partnership set its sights on a specific goal, it works towards it using a variety of methods. Along the way it might be a scold, nudge, cheerleader, or all three. It may be the author of a master plan for a specific area (or project) – or it could be simply the catalyst for making such a project come to fruition. And the original short term goal may evolve into something larger and more profound.
Take the Baltimore Design School for instance. The school’s new building, whose distinctive orange water tower is so evident in the City’s skyline, first came onto the CBP’s radar when it compiled a list of buildings that it felt should be subjected to strategic code enforcement in Greenmount West, and some other Central Baltimore neighborhoods. The idea was to single out buildings with an egregious lack of maintenance, rather than advocate for a blitz of the neighborhood with building inspectors.
High on the list was the Lebow building, a former garment factory, which at one time had been at the apex of modern industrial building design, but had now fallen on hard times. Shuttered since 1985, it was literally rotting when it appeared on CBP’s list in 2007.
The City Government was responsive. Subsequent inspections led to fines that went unpaid, and City-ordered repairs that were never done. Finally a lien was placed against the building. This resulted in a standoff. The next step would have been to go to court to put the building into receivership. But this is a step the City of Baltimore is reluctant to take without the likelihood of buyers. So CBP (working with its partner Jubilee Baltimore) sought potential buyers for the Lebow Building.
Once it was established that there was a market for developers who were interested in turning the building into rental units, the City went ahead. It went to court to put the building into receivership, which would, in turn, allow it to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But the process was slow, thanks to fierce opposition from the building’s owner, the Abraham Zion Corporation and their lawyers Shapiro, Sher, Guinot & Sandler which challenged not only the city’s inspections, but the basic constitutionality of the receivership law. It seemed as if each legal round the city won was only setting the stage for future legal action.
Things escalated. Neighborhood leaders went to courts to show that the building was worse than simply in code violation; it was an imminent threat to public safety. In collaboration with a clinic of the Law School of the University of Maryland, CBP worked with its partners in the community (such as the New Greenmount West Community Association) to help concerned residents (who were eyewitnesses to the danger) to file ‘amicus briefs’ documenting the “chunks of concrete” falling off the building, as described in the Daily Record. As a result, on September 15, 2009, A Baltimore Judge put an end to what had appeared to be an endless process, by ruling that the building was so dangerous it would have to be demolished immediately (rather be put in to receivership) with the costs to be paid by the Abraham Zion Corporation. Better than having a building rotting away, but not exactly a happy ending, either.
Then Seawall Development, stepped in. Seawall was one of the real estate developers that had been interested in the project when CBP was trying to demonstrate the feasibility of receivership to the City. Unfortunately, early ideas about creating rental units through standard financing were no longer feasible. But CBP Chair Fred Lazarus IV had an idea. He had been enlisted by State Senator Catherine Pugh to work on creating the Baltimore Design School. Why not turn the Lebow Building into the home of what would become the new Baltimore Design School?
Seawall ran with the concept. It came up with $2 million to make a quick purchase of the building from the Abraham Zion Corporation before the teardown date. With no alternative but to pay for demolition or sell, the New York-based company, which had so long resisted parting with its property, relented. With the change in ownership and what would turn out to be a $26.5 million innovative public/private financing scheme underway, the judge was satisfied that the building would no longer be a threat and the demolition order was removed
But the Central Baltimore Partnership’s work was not yet finished. In 2013, it applied for a grant to secure the funds to paint the water tower the distinctive orange that makes it so visible in the city’s skyline.
“The Baltimore Design School was one of the projects I was referring to when I made my speech in Brentwood Commons,” noted Fred Lazarus IV, “where I said: ‘The list of what we want to do remains long, but our accomplishments are great.’ People often ask me what exactly the Central Baltimore does. And I tell them, it’s not always that exact. But if something needs to be done in Central Baltimore, the Central Baltimore Partnership will try to do it.
“That’s what happened with the Lebow Building/Baltimore Design School. When something needed to be done, whether it was as basic as protecting people from falling debris, or just adding a little icing to the cake with the paint for the water tower, we stepped in. And as we go down that list of what needs to be done, that’s the role that we expect to play in the future.”