Baltimore Design School

Baltimore Design School

THE BALTIMORE DESIGN SCHOOL, with its distinctive orange water tower prominent in Baltimore’s skyline, was once home to the Crown Cork and Seal Company, the inventors of the bottle cap. The building was later home to a men’s garment factory run by the Lebow Brothers. Shuttered in 1985, the building was literally rotting by the time it appeared on CBP’s list of neglected buildings in 2007. The strategy was to focus on unmaintained buildings that possessed enormous potential to revive neighborhoods with the help of the community and city agencies.

Baltimore City government under the O’Malley administration, was responsive. Subsequent building inspections led to unpaid fines for neglected building repairs. Finally, a lien was placed on the building, but this resulted in a stand-off with the building owners. CBP worked with its partner, Jubilee Baltimore, to find potential buyers for the building.

Once the city was satisfied that developers were interested in purchasing the building, it went to court to put it into receivership. 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, who challenged not only the city’s inspections, but the basic constitutionality of receivership law.

The Danger to Public Safety: Falling “Chunks of Concrete”

Neighborhood leaders went to court to show that the building was worse than it seemed; that it was an imminent threat to public safety.  In collaboration with the legal clinic at the Law School of the University of Mayland, CBP worked with the Greenmount West Community Association and other partners to help concerned residents 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 City judge put an end to an endless process by ruling that the building was so dangerous it would have to be demolished immediately (rather than be put into receivership) with the cost to be paid by the Abraham Zion Corporation.

Seawall Development Steps In

Seawall was one of the real estate developers that expressed interest 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 Fred Lazarus IV, CBP’s steering committee chair at the time, had an idea. He had been enlisted by (then) state senator (now Baltimore City mayor) Catherine Pugh to work on creating the Baltimore Design School. Why not turn the Lebow Brother’s building into the home of what would become the new Baltimore Design School?

Seawall Development ran with the idea. 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 that long resisted parting with the building, 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.

The Outcome

Commenting on the outcome of the Baltimore Design School, CBP Executive Director, Ellen Janes, commented, “I think the Baltimore Design School is a classic example of how things get done at CBP. We started with an immediate problem and we decided to tackle it without having a final outcome in mind. This wasn’t a lack of foresight on our part. It was a belief in process. We know that if we can fully engage a broad cross-section of parties who care about Central Baltimore, we’ll get a good outcome. So we put our energy and creativity into a process that, in turn, triggers the energy and creativity of a group of partners — from our neighborhood groups to city government, to cultural institutions to business people — and creates a chain reaction that no single organization (however large) could pull off.”

Baltimore Design School photograph by Edward Weiss Words and Pictures
The Baltimore Design School (with 100% graduation and college acceptance rates in 2017) is one of the jewels of the Baltimore Public School System. The building itself has become an asset to Central Baltimore through hosting public events such the PMF Fair pictured above.