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Bell Foundry, shuttered by Baltimore officials, is for sale

The Bell Foundry, the community arts workspace in Station North that was condemned by Baltimore housing officials in December, and the surrounding parcel of land have been listed for sale for $1 million.

The 13,000-square-foot building — which housed dozens of local artists in theatre, art and recording studios until the city boarded it up for safety violations after a fire in a similar space in Oakland, Calif., killed 36 people — is advertised as a "development opportunity" in a listing for the property on Advance Realty Direct.

Co-owner Joseph McNeely said the condemnation was not the driving factor for putting it on the market. Redevelopment had always been the eventual goal, he said.

"If we didn't sell it, we'd have to figure out, 'What's another short-term use until it's ready to be redeveloped?'" he said.

McNeely said the owners bought the Bell Foundry in 2006 to create a mixed-use project with residences, businesses and space for artists, but the redevelopment ground to a halt two years later when the real estate softened.

The artists who rented studios in the building signed two-year leases in 2015 that were supposed to end in November. None of those leases were residential, he said.

"This was the year to decide how to put it into development," he said. "It turns out me and my partners are not in a position to develop the site."

The building, on a 0.31-acre site at the corner of North Calvert and East Federal streets, is just east of Penn Station in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which was designated in 2002 for artist work spaces, galleries and studios.

The Bell Foundry produces $72,000 per year in gross rents and has received $150,000 in recent renovations, including HVAC and a new roof, according to Advance Realty. The property was sold in March 2006 for $500,000; its total value was assessed in 2016 at $199,900. It includes a 0.25-acre surface parking lot.

City officials said the building's "deplorable conditions," and not the Oakland fire, were responsible for the abrupt closing. Inspectors responding to a complaint on Dec. 5 found four violations: no valid permit, unsafe conditions, use of flammables and combustibles, and unlawful removal of beams from the ceiling, officials said.

All tenants were moved out.

McNeely — a longtime supporter of the arts district — hopes that any redevelopment of the Bell Foundry retain some role in Station North's arts offerings, but he acknowledged it won't be up to him.

"We are not restricting or directing what will go there; we're looking for offers," McNeely said. "We would like for it to be able to contribute to the arts district, as we've always wanted it to, but that will be in the hands of the buyer. … The site lends itself to a mixed-use development and I think that's what anyone would do."

Que Pequeno, a 25-year-old artist and deejay from Gardenville who stayed at the Bell Foundry for eight months, now lives in a flat in Station North.

He said he wasn't surprised: Most of the artists in the building heard four months ago that it would be sold and redeveloped. He expects it to be replaced with high-rent apartments or other amenities outside of the artist community's price range — "something not meant for me, not meant for my friends."

"I've known since a week after we got evicted," Pequeno said. "It was obvious that was the plan: to kick us out and sell it for a higher price. That's gentrification. That's how it works."

Jon Laria co-chairs Mayor Catherine E. Pugh's Safe Art Spaces Task Force. He said the city can't force an incoming developer to incorporate the artists in its plans.

"Hopefully there's way to maintain it for use for the artist community," said Laria, a partner at the Ballard Spahr law firm. "But it's a private transaction and we don't have any authority to intervene."

Pugh formed the task force in December after the Bell Foundry was shuttered to identify "safe, cost-effective" spaces in the city for young artists to live. The mayor signed an executive order last week to allow artists to remain in their work and living spaces as long as the buildings "do not represent an imminent threat to life or safety" as a short-term step to avoid displacing artists unnecessarily.

The task force has held public hearings to gather input, Laria said, and has begun drafting proposals to submit to the mayor.

One key need it has identified: an ombudsperson for artists, who don't know all the regulatory codes, to help them sustain safe art spaces.

"We need a structure that makes that resource available to people so they can navigate the complex regulatory environment," he said.

The arts community isn't finished with the Bell Foundry.

Members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society spent the past weekend cleaning the Bell Foundry's yard, hosting call-backs and collecting set materials for their September production of "The Terrible Secret of the Lunastus," a science fiction work billed as a "zany comedy-action romp through the outers of space."

The rock opera society was allowed to move back into its first-floor workspace in the otherwise-condemned building in February and resume its lease as the sole remaining tenant, said artistic director Aran Keating. But the organization is searching for a permanent home in November.

"As a volunteer nonprofit, we're still figuring out what our next steps are," Keating said.

He said the artist tenants in the building see the for-sale listing as a reaffirmation of what they long felt: it was never a permanent home.

"We were able to make that space work, but it was never a space any of the artists living there had any control over," he said.

Still, the rock opera society will continue to cherish its 4,000-square-foot workshop, a collaborative space where members build sets, creates costumes and makes other preparations for performances.

"Having been there four years," Keating said, "that building contains some of our proudest memories of what we've been able to accomplish."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

@cmcampbell6

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