When the Living Classrooms Foundation's 75-foot "learning tower" sprouted on the Southeast Baltimore waterfront in the 1990s, it had a clear view of downtown skyscrapers, distant city neighborhoods and even the Key Bridge.
These days, the condominiums and offices of Harbor East, and the Exelon Corp. tower nearing completion at Harbor Point are all you can see from most angles.
What is left of its unobstructed vistas soon will look a lot different, too — the long-planned and long-fought extension of Central Avenue across Living Classrooms' marina into Harbor Point will begin to materialize this year, along with a new apartment building in the project between Fells Point and Harbor East. The bridge will eat up a third of the maritime-oriented nonprofit's boat slips and choke its connection to the harbor.
But the organization that helps 2,000 children and adults across Southeast Baltimore is making the best of it, CEO James Piper Bond said. The 30-year-old nonprofit, supported by Baltimore's biggest foundations and business players, offers education and job training using boats, playing fields and community centers as its "living classrooms."
A new building for the city charter middle school that Living Classrooms operates on what it calls its East Harbor campus is expected to open by the end of the month, paid for through a financing deal the city and Beatty Development Group reached in 2013 to fund Harbor Point infrastructure. Exelon, the energy company that will soon be the foundation's new neighbor, already is sending about 75 of its employees to mentor students at the school.
"That takes a little bit of the sting out of it," Bond said.
The bridge has been viewed as an essential link to any development at Harbor Point ever since the former site of an AlliedSignal chrome plant was first eyed for construction in the 1990s. With Exelon set to move into its 20-story tower by the end of the year and groundbreaking this month on the next Harbor Point project, a 17-story apartment building, its time has come.
"Right now you have to be on Caroline Street to get into Harbor Point," said Marco Greenberg, vice president for development at Beatty. The bridge "is pretty important to the project."
City transportation officials said a contract for the $6.5 million bridge project will be awarded in late January or early February. It would carry two lanes of traffic in both directions, crossing a part of the harbor that is known to be a "hurricane hole," an area that offers boaters protection from storm surges and waves.
The traffic will pass right by a porch off of one of Living Classrooms' main buildings, and in front of the learning tower. It will cross over boat slips the organization rents to private boaters, where it trains people to work in maritime industries, and a pier where it docks ships like the Lady Maryland, a schooner used to teach area schoolchildren about the Chesapeake Bay and other science.
Beatty Development has agreed to pay Living Classrooms $75,000 each year construction keeps it from using the marina at all — the bridge is scheduled to open to traffic in the fall of 2017 — plus $250,000 over a decade to compensate for the permanent loss of about a third of its 48 boat slips, Greenberg said. Plans call for a floating walkway under the bridge to maintain the campus' contact with the water.
Living Classrooms fought the bridge for years. As the project moved forward, it urged city and development officials to keep it to two lanes.
Eventually, Bond said, "it made sense for us to work with the city. You make lemonade out of lemons."
Activities at the east harbor site include operation of the Crossroads School, a charter school that is one of the city's best-performing middle schools, and programs in subjects such as gardening and woodworking.
But they are only one part of Living Classrooms' offerings.
It also runs a youth center on East Fayette Street, educational programs on historic ships like the Constellation and the POWER House Community Center at Perkins Homes. It also operates one of the city's two Safe Streets programs, an anti-violence initiative Bond said is getting back on track after a police investigation last summer prompted accusations that two employees stashed guns and drugs in the Monument Street Safe Streets office the nonprofit runs.
In 2014, Living Classrooms reported nearly $10 million in revenue and almost $15 million in assets.
Over the years, the organization received offers to move to waterfront land elsewhere, said Bond, acknowledging the irony now that the campus finds itself in a setting that has changed so dramatically since Living Classrooms took over the site on what was a desolate waterfront in 1990. But he said he doesn't regret not taking them.
"We've always politely declined those opportunities," Bond said. "To be in the middle of all of this is important."
There are some upsides to the location. When the City Council approved a $107 million so-called "tax increment financing" (TIF) deal for Harbor Point in September 2013, it included $2 million for the new Crossroads building.
Since the school's founding in 2001, it has been run out of trailers. Before pile-driving for the Exelon tower began last year, the school was moved to the building of shuttered Lombard Middle School half a mile away. But students are expected to return to the east harbor campus by the end of January and fill the classrooms in the new building named for Edward St. John, the real estate executive and philanthropist who donated $800,000 to the project.
Under the tax increment financing deal, Beatty is using its own construction loan to pay for the school and bridge as well as roads, streetlights, sewers and other city-owned infrastructure. The city will repay the loan using proceeds from TIF bonds that will be offered starting this fall, Greenberg said. The bonds will guarantee investors specific property tax receipts from Harbor Point; if the project doesn't generate enough revenue to cover the bonds, the property owners — largely entities controlled by Beatty Development President Michael Beatty — are on the hook for the difference, he said.
When the financing arrangement was approved, the mostly vacant Harbor Point site was assessed at $10 million, but the Baltimore Development Corp. projected it will be valued at $1.8 billion for tax purposes when the development is completed, expected by 2022.
Living Classrooms, meanwhile, expects to get continued support from its new neighbors.
Employees of Exelon and Morgan Stanley, which occupies the first Harbor Point building completed in 2010, mentor Crossroads students, Bond said. Exelon, which said it has donated $900,000 to Living Classrooms over the past four years, expects to start moving employees into the Harbor Point tower by the end of the year, spokesman Paul Adams said.
Bond said he expects more connections to be made, with the employers so close by. There are also about 100 apartments in the tower, plus another 289 housing units coming to Point Street apartments, the 17-story building coming next to Harbor Point and scheduled to be finished in the fall of 2017, Greenberg said.
While all the changes mean some disruption, for Bond, another bright side of that activity is a lot more people passing by Living Classrooms, noticing its tower or its ships like the Lady Maryland — and maybe donating their time or money to help it in its mission.
"None of this was here when we first started," he said.