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City’s first ‘zero-energy’ development coming to West Baltimore’s Penn North neighborhood

At the heart of West Baltimore, city officials celebrated Monday the creation of Baltimore’s first multifamily, “zero-energy” development project, one that will bring affordable housing and commercial storefront units to a section of Baltimore deemed an investment priority.

Steps away from the CVS Pharmacy that burned to the ground during the 2015 unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody, the project — also the state’s first zero-energy, mixed-use development — will feature 20 housing units meant for individuals who earn a certain percentage below the area’s median income as well as four storefronts intended for local, Black-owned businesses and nonprofits, including a child care service provider.

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It complements city officials’ broader vision for the Penn North neighborhood, one of the communities included in an effort to build the city and state’s first Black arts and entertainment district. City officials said the block of town homes at the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues represents a significant milestone that could catalyze more development there.

“This development really checks off a number of those boxes when we think about intersecting components of sustainability, housing and housing development,” said Alice Kennedy, commissioner of the city’s housing department, during remarks at Monday’s groundbreaking marking the project’s official start. “Now is the time.”

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Developers hope the project will lure business owners to set up shop there and live as tenants in the residential units by eliminating transportation and energy bills for them, said lead developer Brendan Schreiber, founder and president of the Schreiber Brothers Development firm.

Those who occupy the commercial spaces will have the first “right of refusal” for the residential units, according to a Monday news release from CEI Boulos Capital Management, a Maine-based investor, and Woodforest National Bank, partners in the Woodforest CEI-Boulos Opportunity Fund, which have several opportunity zone investments throughout the U.S. including $1.1 million in the Zero Energy North Avenue Affordable Housing project.

Buildings in the 1600 block of W. North Ave. in the Penn North neighborhood will be rehabbed as part of the Zero Energy North Avenue Affordable Housing project, a zero-energy, mixed-use development.
Buildings in the 1600 block of W. North Ave. in the Penn North neighborhood will be rehabbed as part of the Zero Energy North Avenue Affordable Housing project, a zero-energy, mixed-use development. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

The project will make over seven aging town homes — to be rehabilitated with “super-insulated” walls and solar panels, as well as other sustainable building practices — that will form two consolidated buildings. In all, investors are contributing about $5 million.

“This is just one project,” said Schreiber, whose development company is based in Baltimore. “This needs to be replicated over and over and over again to make the impact that Baltimore City needs.”

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Much of West Baltimore has been designated for rehabilitation, including a number of properties encompassed by the Black Arts and Entertainment District, including some landmarks of the community’s vibrant jazz-age and artistic past. The city’s vision includes creating more housing, maintaining and uplifting existing community anchors such as the Avenue Market and Shake and Bake recreation center, and sprucing up the area with parks and town squares.

Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s economic development arm, said while some may criticize the merits of Opportunity Zones — created by Congress and then-President Donald Trump’s administration to provide financial incentives to developers who invested in certain areas — Baltimore officials are using them to spur growth in neighborhoods where they are most needed.

Speakers at Monday’s groundbreaking event included Annie Hall, president of the North Community Association; Mark Kaufman, president and CEO of Baltimore’s Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, another source of funds for the project; City Councilman James Torrence, a Democrat who represents the area; and state lawmakers Del. Marlon Amprey and Sen. Antonio Hayes, who represent the district in the Maryland legislature.

Hayes, a West Baltimore native, said the 2015 unrest created an unsettling, and false, narrative for his hometown that failed to include its rich legacy for Black arts and culture. Momentum is finally coalescing around an effort to rewrite that story, he said.

“This is one of the many examples to come ... to bring along the renaissance of West North Avenue,” he said. “We’re excited to have a mixed-use project ... to bring about the change that West Baltimore deserves, that is long overdue.”

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