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Amid potential sale of Area 405, artist community in Baltimore’s Station North fears being priced out

Behind the bright red door in the 400 block of Oliver Street in Station North, a library of more than 3,000 carefully organized tools sits ready for the taking. A layer of sawdust speckles the floor and other surfaces.

The Station North Tool Library, which has operated for about eight years, offers sliding scale memberships for people to rent tools and use the studio space for artistic pursuits or projects. The facility also offers classes in woodworking, joinery, knife making, weaving and more — open to all.

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But anxiety, like a dust cloud, looms large over the tool library staff, who learned last week that the building they occupy has been listed for sale. The promise of Penn Station’s transformation into a modernized, high-speed rail hub, within walking distance of the arts and entertainment district, already has enticed developers to build new residences for D.C. commuters and others.

For those who live and work in Station North, they said the potential sale and redevelopment of the building, called Area 405, has troubling implications for Baltimore’s arts community.

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“We rely on affordable rent to provide affordable tools. It’s that simple,” said Jessa Wais, library services director at the tool library, which serves artists, renters, homeowners and small businesses that can’t afford to buy or store their own equipment. “If this space isn’t kept affordable, the heart and soul of this entire building is gone.”

Rotary saws are stored in front of Lynn McCann, director of development in the Station North tool library called "Area 405," which is now for sale Tue., June 22, 2021.
Rotary saws are stored in front of Lynn McCann, director of development in the Station North tool library called "Area 405," which is now for sale Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Area 405, named after its address at 405 Oliver St., makes up part of district’s vibrant ecosystem for artists, who are attracted to the low-cost studios and the network of other creatives and makers they share space with.

Like other neighborhood buildings, Area 405 was once an industrial warehouse, and grew into a low-cost hub for creatives after its original uses faded into obsolescence. The dated facility enables artists of all trades — painters, musicians, photographers and woodworkers — to make noise and work with large tools.

But there aren’t many spaces like it left.

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Should a developer purchase it, those who work in the building fear being forced out, or having their rents increase too high for them to stay. They and other community members also worry not just about the possibility of losing Area 405 but also the gradual erasure of the arts district as the Penn Station project progresses.

“Because of the affordability, I was able to afford not only having studio space there, but not having to have multiple jobs to afford that space,” said Jackie Milad, a mixed-media artist who has worked out of the building for about six years. “A space like that is really hard to come by in Baltimore.”

A sign for the community tool library called "Area 405," which is now for sale Tue., June 22, 2021.
A sign for the community tool library called "Area 405," which is now for sale Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Milad said she came up in the city arts scene with an eye toward working in Area 405 someday.

“I wanted to be in community with folks I really respect,” she said. “When artists are in one building, certain things like inviting a curator or someone from out of town to come to visit our studio, we could really entice them. This is a one-stop studio visit for these folks, that otherwise would be apprehensive.”

The four-story, approximately 66,000-square-foot building is jointly owned by five partners who make up 3 Square Feet LLC. The Baltimore Sun was able to reach Tom Witt — a home inspector, sculptor and furniture maker — and artist Monika Graves, both of whom declined to comment on the decision to sell.

The threat of displacement weighs heavy on the Station North community.

Ari Azarbarzin, who is representing the sellers of Area 405 at the Cushman & Wakefield commercial real estate firm, said the property, composed of 405 to 417 Oliver St., already has garnered “high interest and activity” from buyers. He emphasized the influence the new Penn Station would have on market activity.

Haniel Wides, director of education and shop services, moves equipment in the woodworking section of the Station North tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021.
Haniel Wides, director of education and shop services, moves equipment in the woodworking section of the Station North tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“The location and quality will yield a lot of interest and competition among buyers, and will drive favorable market conditions for the client, in this case the seller,” Azarbarzin said.

He said while he could not predict the future, he also could not rule out a new buyer wanting to keep the tool library, studios and gallery spaces intact and affordable.

“I can’t predict with any certainty what will happen,” he said.

Cushman & Wakefield, in an online real estate flyer, said the “Oliver Street Lofts” would be “well-suited for a partial re-development adding additional apartments,” and could attract “Millennial and Generation Z Renters” who may work or go to school in the area. It referred to the listing as a “once-in-a-generation acquisition opportunity.”

“Future ownership has the rare and immediate opportunity to reposition the Property as a live-work community greatly increasing the multifamily density, while preserving the Property’s artistic heritage and community presence,” the real estate flyer reads.

The entrance of the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021.
The entrance of the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore artist Stewart Watson, her husband, Jim Vose, and engineer and entrepreneur Steve Freel, found the building in the early 2000s. The former C.M. Kemp industrial plant had been vacant for nearly eight years.

With the help of the additional partners, they spent $170,000 to buy the old warehouse, so filled with debris that it took 30-yard dumpsters to clean it out, The Sun reported previously. No bank would write a mortgage.

A Venetian blind factory had been there in the 1970s. In previous lives it had been a brewery and a plant that produced the small furnaces used to melt the lead in Linotype machines. The Kemp company also rented out some of the space to smaller companies.

The building is now a beehive of working artists’ studios. There’s a gallery for exhibitions and meeting spaces.

Artists who use the facility say the benefit of working there lies in the community formed with other like-minded creatives and the networking opportunities it affords.

The metalworks section and gallery currently are attached with the woodworking section (right side of photo) in a panoramic image taken inside the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021.
The metalworks section and gallery currently are attached with the woodworking section (right side of photo) in a panoramic image taken inside the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“It really encouraged my career,” said Antonio McAfee, a photographer and professor who works out of Area 405 and lives in the neighborhood. “It made me realize how important it was to have a studio outside where I live and keep artists in my proximity. It made all the difference versus somewhere more isolated.”

Artists and the tool library staff said Watson provided them with the support and resources they needed to thrive there. But she and her husband relocated to the United Kingdom before the coronavirus pandemic, and have yet to return to Baltimore. They could not be reached for comment.

After news of the building’s potential sale reached the community, Ellen Janes, director of the Central Baltimore Partnership nonprofit, said she met with appraisers to evaluate the building, and reached a figure of $2.2 million. She said she’d like to work with a developer to buy the property and keep the ground floor — which includes the tool library and gallery — and all of the artists’ studios affordable. She said she’d also hope to involve city relief funds.

Representatives from Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s office did not respond to requests about the feasibility of using such funds, but said he “is engaging the arts community and Greenmount West to find a solution.”

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The Central Baltimore Partnership’s proposal, if successful, might mean opening up much of the building to market-rate prices, a concession that has divided members of the community.

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Wood routers rest at the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021.
Wood routers rest at the community tool library. Tue., June 22, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Some fear that could drive some artists out of the building and away from the area, while others said it’s better than the alternative.

“From a neighborhood perspective, that’s our best bet,” said Adam Kutcher, chair of the Greenmount West Community Association’s land use committee. “Recognizing the economic realities of providing a safe space for the arts and the artists to live, that takes investment.”

The tool library’s Wais and Lynn McCann, director of development there, said despite the uncertainties brought on by a potential sale, it’s also given them an opportunity to reflect.

Wais said they have discussed trying to acquire the ground floor of the building, so the tool library could escape the vagaries of the market and third-party acquisition. McCann said collective ownership, or finding a sympathetic owner, also could protect them against displacement.

“On the whole, we are strongly in support of the building maintaining its creative uses, both as home for the tool library and artists who rely on it, and we’re supportive of efforts for that vision,” McCann said. “We are looking forward to working with anyone who’s looking to preserve or expand the building as a creative resource.”

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