A creative solution to Baltimore's vacants problem

Why not donate vacant buildings to artists for use and maintenance?

Late last month, the deadline passed for proposals to redevelop the dilapidated buildings along the 400 block of North Howard Street in Baltimore, which falls within the territory of the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District.

Bromo Arts and The Downtown Partnership have worked hard to encourage local, unincorporated artist groups to consider equity-ownership in the area as a path to sustained operation — a rare and commendable effort, especially contrasted to Station North, where revitalization has priced out many artists.

But the buildings on the 400 block of North Howard have been boarded up for years. Each requires between $70,000 and $200,000 in investment just to stabilize the foundational structure, according to property assessments. Beyond that, my personal experience tells me the renovation of these structures could cost between $50,000 and $1 million apiece. A mom-and-pop business would likely risk everything to invest in these buildings; an artist group accepting this responsibility would become full-time construction managers and professional fund raisers — who knows if they would have time to continue their arts programming? The tax incentives offered by the city seem to pale in comparison to the liability and the risk.

With such upfront costs, the area seems fated to luxury apartments, rather than local residents; high costs ensure the need for high profits.

Everyone has strong feelings on the vacancy issue: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continues to promote the Vacants to Value program, calling for redevelopment of abandoned properties, while Gov. Larry Hogan is rallying for a demolition derby. But perhaps there is another option.

One building in this RFP zone is neither empty nor mangled. The property at 421 North Howard has been maintained since 2010 by Current Space, an artist-run gallery and community center. The group left their previous location at city-owned 30 South Calvert Street when the property was packaged into a development parcel. The city granted the 421 space for just the cost of property taxes and utilities in a move that appears to have been unprecedented for Maryland. Current Space mobilized a community to rebuild the sagging innards of 421 and turned it into a thriving center. Beyond the interior renovation that artists are always adept at, the collective replaced half of the roof and was able to locate and fix a broken underground pipe between its property and a vacant neighbor. Without the collective's presence, the pipe would have leaked water until the foundations turned to swamp, and the roof would have caved in.

Leipzig, just south of Berlin in North Germany, has been dealing with a post-industrial economy similar to Baltimore's since the fall of the Berlin Wall (admittedly, though, free of the crippling racial segregation). In 2004, their incorporation of a program called Wächtershäuser — "house guardian" — into city policy allowed the exchange of vacant buildings to artists for the benefit of having those artists maintain the space. Instead of rows of crumbling, empty buildings, they have active and safe streets, buildings receiving proper care, and an arts community with ample space to work in. The program has saved dozens of buildings and often leads resident artist groups to a financial stability, where they're able to purchase the property.

Baltimore seems to have stumbled on a similar idea with Current Space and needs to acknowledge its success. Current Space deserves right of first refusal on the 421 property, considering all of the sweat equity they have invested. They and Wächtershäuser have shown that artists can protect these buildings if they're given a chance and the financial risk is mitigated.

The city has recognized the importance of promoting the arts and minimizing vacant properties. Pairing the initiatives can help to serve each of them.

Colin Alexander is an artist and writer. His email is colin.klockner@gmail.com.

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