Greenmount Avenue warehouse to be converted to 50 artist apartments

A Baltimore developer plans to turn a vacant warehouse near Green Mount Cemetery into a 50-unit apartment building for artists.

Half the units are to be made available at a reduced rate by allowing artists to barter services such as painting or providing art to decorate the building, in exchange for reduced rent, said Ernst Valery, founder and president of SAA | EVI Development.


Valery said he intends to make high-quality housing more affordable for artists, while making the building itself more unusual.

"Instead of having a contractor paint our hallways, we can have an artist do something much more interesting," he said.


The remaining units are to be rented at market rates.

SAA | EVI Development is also moving forward with an eight-story, 103-unit building overlooking Penn Station. Called Nelson Kohl, the building is also designed with artists in mind, with 20 units offered at discounted rates through Valery's barter system. Baltimore's Milk & Honey Market, which closed its Cathedral Street cafe last year, will reopen on the ground floor

The two properties add valuable housing stock to the Station North Arts District, a burgeoning arts and entertainment center that encompasses the Charles North and Greenmount West neighborhoods. An area that years ago was marked largely by vacant and abandoned properties has been transformed by projects such as The Parkway Theater, Motor House and Open Works.

"Greenmount West has done a really rather stunning turnaround," said Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit developer. "You walk down the streets of Greenmount West, and it just feels like being in a Baltimore neighborhood.

"It used to feel like the set of a movie your grandmother wouldn't want to watch."

With commercial development has come significant demand for residential space — at least 1,000 people have moved into Station North since the district was established in 2002, according to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"When the district started off in 2002, demand for artist housing increased exponentially," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.

Dozens of artists who had been living in work studios at the Bell Foundry in the neighborhood were evicted in December when the city condemned the building. The building was subsequently put up for sale.

Duff said he does not think the fact that artists were living at the Bell Foundry, which was not permitted for residential use, speaks to a shortage of housing in the area, but rather the district's popularity among artists who feel at home there.

"It's a place where people can be fairly free," he said, in "how they behave, the amount of noise they make."

The SAA | EVI Development development at 1812 Greenmount Ave. will be next door to City Arts 2, a 60-unit building by Jubilee Baltimore, Homes for America and TRF Development Partners.

The $15.9 million project was built with $1.2 million in low-income housing tax credits, which raised about $12 million for the project and made it possible to rent units to artists and disabled people with incomes below a certain threshold. It was fully leased when it opened in 2016, Duff said.


The group opened its first artist housing development, City Arts, down the road in 2010.

rowth at nearby Maryland Institute College of Art has helped drive demand for affordable housing in a neighborhood with an artistic feel.

The neighborhood's central location is served well by mass transit, including the Johns Hopkins shuttle, and has plenty of cheap parking, he said. The city has marketed the area to Washington workers who could commute from nearby Penn Station.

City Arts 2, SAA | EVI Development, unlike its neighbor, will not be using affordable-housing tax credits, which is why Valery wants to establish a barter system to help reduce rent for some tenants.

SAA | EVI Development acquired the Greenmount Avenue property at public auction this year.

"Baltimore is lucky to have creative local developers who see opportunities in our vacant inventory," Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. "It is exciting to see continued investment in Greenmount West and the Greenmount Avenue corridor."

Valery said he expects the company will need to demolish the unstable building to make way for the planned four- or five-story apartment building.

He said he envisions the building as a sort of artists' collective, with small apartments and larger shared space, including a communal kitchen and dining area.

"What I love about this project is the creativity," said Fowler.

Tax credits are a key way that developers support affordable housing developments for low-income renters. Fowler said the city must keep a sharp focus on neighborhood revitalization efforts, such as the one underway in Greenmount West, to ensure that current residents aren't displaced in the process.

At the same time, he said, he encourages developers to come up with ways other than public funding to keep rents low.

"We need to continue to push affordable options, and if we need to have a creative bartering system to do it, we should do it," Fowler said. "Not every solution to our affordable housing needs needs to come through a city or state or government program."

SAA | EVI Development expects to begin site work and demolition at 1812 Greenmount Ave. early next year, with a planned opening in 2019.

Nelson Kohl will begin pre-leasing in September, with the first residents expected to move in by January or February.

Local artists gathered their belongings from the Bell Foundry arts building as it is condemned by the city. (Baltimore Sun video)

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