Some workers arranged crafts, clothes and toys on tables and racks as others put the final touches on the “Made in Baltimore” sign outside the pop-up shop that was to open Friday on North Avenue.
This is the sixth time the city-backed operators will showcase goods made by city artisans and entrepreneurs, and this year the storefront will remain open for six months and perhaps permanently — a commitment representing recent progress in luring tenants to spots along this once-neglected commercial corridor.
“No question the arts community is powering this,” said Ellen Janes, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership, which has led efforts by a host of arts groups, as well as other academic, neighborhood, business, government and nonprofit organizations that have invested more than $133 million in the past five years in revitalization projects around this stretch of North Avenue.
Janes acknowledges the corridor in the geographic center of Baltimore City has a ways to go with barriers such as hold-out or absentee landlords, expensive renovations needed for long-vacant buildings and other problems related to urban decay. The corridor is part of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which has seen investment before only to stall.
This time several major anchors have opened, bringing growing numbers of creative people and consumers to the avenue, returning it to wider use and helping change the perception of its safety.
The Maryland Institute College of Art moved graduate programs to a building there. Motor House is where the artist commissioned to paint Michelle Obama’s portrait has a studio along with other artists, nonprofits and performers. There is also the Centre Theatre, where MICA and Johns Hopkins University film students train and Impact Hub Baltimore provides collaborative work space for the civic minded.
The Ynot Lot offers an outdoor performance space run by the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Across the street is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway theater, home of the Maryland Film Festival and other daily programming.
There are also facade improvements and street upgrades on the way, including improved lighting and gardens in the medians that will replace overgrown shrubs that collect garbage and inhibit visibility. Officials are working on more safe and accessible parking.
“It’s important to sweat the small stuff; it shows that someone is paying attention,” said Andrew Frank, special adviser to the president on economic development at Johns Hopkins, which has provided grants, spurred other funding and moved students into spaces on North Avenue, partially through a program it launched to decrease blight and crime in neighborhoods surrounding its Homewood campus.
All the investments have been noticed by Sarah Marriage, who runs A Workshop of Our Own, a nonprofit that teaches women and those of nonconforming gender to use tools. She is one of the businesses and groups stocking the pop-up shop. Last year when her nonprofit’s goods were sold in another North Avenue storefront, Marriage said, the group toiled to meet demand for ornaments and other gift items like cheese boards.
If sales are as good this year, she said she would consider selling other items such as furniture after the holidays.
“Having the shop open a longer span of time allows people to see what’s being made in Baltimore and then have time later on to think about what they might want and go back,” Marriage said. “They may say, I like this ornament and next time maybe I’ll buy a little stool.”
She and others said the location on North Avenue at the city center and accessible to many city neighborhoods and within the arts and entertainment district attracts consumers who are other artists and also neighbors and city workers.
Accessibility is key to any retailer, said Andy Cook, director of Made in Baltimore, a program supported by the city’s Office of Sustainability that brands, supports and helps market locally made goods. The program staffs and runs the shop and keeps a percentage of sales.
He said the North Avenue shop did so well last year that most operators have returned and this year’s shop will open with goods from 50 small, local businesses.
“Our mission at Made In Baltimore is to grow jobs in light manufacturing and entrepreneurship,” he said. “It feels like the right neighborhood for this shop with our members, in part because of all of the creative people here already.”
And while many of the other anchors also support artists, most also actively court outsiders. The Ynot Lot hosts events and concerts open to all.
The Parkway relies on movie lovers from all over to come for the five-day film festival and other films shown daily, many that can’t be seen elsewhere in the region, said Evan Rogers, the theater’s director of operations. The Maryland Film Festival painstakingly restored the theater to provide a unique and pleasant experience.
“We call it rescued ruin,” Rogers said of the nonprofit’s efforts to restore tile, plaster and other building materials inside the 1915 theater that had been vacant since 1978 before its reopening last year.
Baltimore Arts Realty Corp. opened The Motor House in 2015 in a former Ford dealership. Artists there are encouraged not to be so perfect. In fact they can draw on the walls in the alleys outside. There is a bar where Kevin Hart recently recorded an episode of his Comedy Central show “Hart of the City” with local comedians.
New performers also have the chance to get up on a stage that still has a basement vibe but modern equipment and infrastructure. The complex replaced Load of Fun, closed in 2013 for safety reasons that also shuttered other artists’ spaces in the district.
The Joe Squared pizza and performance space moved onto North Avenue in 2005 with a wave of other artists and venues such as the Wind-up Space for live music. Owner Joe Edwardsen said safety is important, but when artists are kicked out of their cheap space in the district they move on to other areas.
He said he was pleased North Avenue is again attracting investments in the arts, and hopes more performance spaces and studios open. He also hopes this time there is more retail and residential, though he expects it would be too expensive for artists and likely appeal more to commuters through the nearby Penn Station, which offers regional MARC service and intercity Amtrak service.
“This is the kind of thing we were working on 15 years ago,” said Edwardsen, who moved Joe Squared to a new building recently when his old landlord wanted to sell her building. “It’s moving in the right direction, they’re bringing people in.”
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For all the arts-centered venues, Johns Hopkins and Central Baltimore Partnership officials say there are efforts to attract all kinds of users, especially to vacant buildings.
Joe Squared is flanked by two vacant properties that could be sold to new developers if the landlords do not abate city citations for the condition of the buildings. Several other buildings are under consideration to become shops, theaters or apartments.
A Washington developer, Gragg Cardona Partners, recently announced that it would renovate a North Avenue building into 46 mixed-income apartments with ground-floor shops. On the developer’s website, it touted the project’s proximity to theaters and the arts community, as well as Penn Station, Johns Hopkins and even the Inner Harbor about 2 miles south.
A 20-story public housing complex for seniors and the disabled that is just off North Avenue recently entered a federal program that provides $35 million to a private developer to upgrade and manage the public property. The Central Baltimore Partnership’s Janes said a wellness center also is planned there as an effort to serve and be more inclusive of the people already living nearby.
Janes said there are plenty of gaps on North Avenue, and the corridor still could use more sprucing up. But, every investment helps, and she considered the Made in Baltimore shop a big step.
“It’s all about eliminating vacancy,” she said, “and replacing it with vibrancy.”
Here are some projects recently opened on North Avenue:
- Ynot Lot, an outdoor performance space
- Motor House, artist studios, nonprofit work space and performance spaces
- The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, home of the Maryland Film Festival
- Centre Theatre, a training place for MICA and Hopkins film students
- Institute of Contemporary Art, a gallery
- Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a regional office
- Joe Squared, a pizza and performance place (relocation)
About to open or investment to begin
- Made in Baltimore shop, a retail store for 50 local businesses
- Le Comptoir du Vine, a French wine shop and cafe
- J.Van Story Branch, a public housing complex scheduled for a major facelift
- Gardens in the street medians, street lights, parking and other infrastructure
- A 46-unit mixed-income apartment building and retail by D.C. developer Gragg Cardona Partners
- Other theaters, retail and apartment projects are in talks for space on the avenue and eventually the Baltimore City public school headquarters building could be put to new use.
If you want to go to the Made In Baltimore store: It’s at 20 W. North Ave. and doors will open Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. After that, regular hours will be noon to 7 p.m., Thursday to Sunday.