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As artists vacate shuttered Bell Foundry, questions swirl around building's condition — and its future

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

The mass eviction of artists from a warehouse in Baltimore's Station North Arts District stoked a national debate about the safety of the arrangements between landlords and local artists intent on maintaining affordable spaces for the creative class.

It raised questions about who is responsible for safety and compliance in such multipurpose buildings, and how the North Calvert Street commercial building reached the state of disrepair that prompted its condemnation Monday.

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Dozens of artists, evicted from what is known as the Bell Foundry after numerous code violations were discovered Monday, rushed to remove belongings Tuesday during a small window of access allotted to them by city housing and fire officials.

A deadly fire that ripped through a similar space in Oakland, Calif., last weekend focused national attention on the real estate that artists use as studios and sometimes housing.

After inspecting the Baltimore building, city officials noted "deplorable conditions," including holes in second-story floors, unsafe electrical wiring, a heating system without appropriate ventilation and missing beams in the ceiling.

One of the building's landlords, Joseph McNeely — a key supporter of the arts district for many years — said he still knew too little about the alleged violations to say whether the building could have a second life as cheap studio space for up-and-coming artists.

"We need to see what violations the city is actually going to cite," McNeely said. "They are going to write up their findings, and it's going to be what's in writing that is going to determine whether people can stay or not."

McNeely said the leases he had with the building's tenants — the nonprofit Baltimore Rock Opera Society on the first floor and 10 local artists subleasing studios on the second floor — required them to obtain any permits they needed to use the building for their artwork but also to run any modifications to the building past him.

McNeely said the leases also barred the tenants from living in the building. He would not provide a copy of the leases, saying they were proprietary.

Housing officials said there is evidence tenants were living in the space unlawfully. Several tenants declined to comment on whether they lived there.

Aran Keating, artistic director of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, said his organization worked to "be above board" with the space, and that housing officials had led him to believe the closure of the building was targeting the second-floor tenants and that his organization was "collateral damage."

McNeely said he was at the Bell Foundry on Monday and Tuesday talking to tenants but remained unsure of next steps.

"We do want the art community to know what we're doing," he said. "The problem is, at the moment, we don't know what we're doing. We've got to figure this one out."

He said he has been fighting to provide "safe and compliant" space for local artists for decades.

"It's a very delicate balancing between developing a space and making it safe, and the price that emerging artists can afford," he said.

Kate Jordan, senior vice president of the commercial real estate brokerage Lee & Associates and a longtime resident of Baltimore, said the commercial leases described by McNeely sounded "pretty normal" in terms of putting the onus for obtaining permits on the tenants, but that "most responsible landlords are actively involved in making sure that [tenants] aren't doing anything illegal in the space."

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For good or bad, she said, landlords and tenants in old buildings being repurposed and rented cheaply in downtrodden neighborhoods often have a "wink, wink" understanding that small code violations will be overlooked. But, she added, there should never be compromises when it comes to matters of safety.

"Hopefully the good that will come out of all of this is people will realize the importance of following those rules," she said.

Baltimore City evicted residents of The Bell Foundry last year. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

Others said the city should have stepped in long ago.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the district, said the Bell Foundry has been "an ongoing problem" for years, and that it was "actually a little bit unfortunate that the city let it go this far" despite his passing along complaints from other neighborhood residents for years.

"We know that the building wasn't zoned for living, but I think in some sympathetic sort of way the city was allowing that to happen — which was endangering lives," he said.

Stokes said the fact that people were living in the building "was evident from seeing clothes hanging out the window drying," even though the building was not zoned residential.

He also said housing officials told him they found "a heating system with no ventilation" in the building during the inspections on Monday, meaning "folks could have died from carbon monoxide poisoning, the building could have blown up."

Baltimore is lucky, Stokes said, it isn't facing a similar situation as Oakland, where officials on Tuesday still were trying to search through portions of an arts space there known as the "Ghost Ship" after a fire late Friday during an electronic dance music concert killed at least 36 people. Officials said they had received complaints about possible code violations and tenants living illegally in that building.

Stokes said he wants artists in Baltimore to have affordable housing, but not in buildings like the Bell Foundry, which he called "very, very, very dangerous."

Robert Stokes Sr., of no relation, who will replace Carl Stokes on the City Council on Thursday, said he also had concerns, saying the Bell Foundry "could have blown up" due to the lack of ventilation.

"That's a major concern about safety, not just for them but for the community, the people who are living in that area," he said.

He also said he supports the arts and affordable housing, and that "everybody should sit down together" to figure out a solution to the Bell Foundry's closing.

Tenants of the building seemed too busy to think of the future on Tuesday, working in drizzle and rain to move their belongings — tables, drum kits, a box spring — to double-parked trucks and vans.

Musician and tenant Jesse Briata said the shock and disappointment of the city's decision to evict the tenants remained fresh as he prepared to move his things to a friend's house temporarily.

"It was just the most inclusive space, the most legitimately [do-it-yourself] space that really tried to give voice to people that didn't necessarily have a voice," he said. "Luckily, there's a really solid support network of DIY people, different spaces and such."

Supporters set up canopies to block the rain and a table filled with homemade food, fruit and coffee. By Tuesday night, they had also raised nearly $15,000 in donations online for the displaced tenants.

Jana Hunter, lead singer of the Baltimore band Lower Dens, was not a tenant of the Bell Foundry but showed up in the morning to help. A Texas native, Hunter said Baltimore's arts scene was the biggest reason she moved here, and a huge reason Baltimore's arts and music culture is known around the world.

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"People have a conception of what an arts community is supposed to look like so they can sell it, but this is where art comes from," Hunter said. "This is why the city has developed a reputation that it has. These are the people that provide that. … If the city wants to capitalize on that reputation and capitalize on these folks' efforts, then they need to work with them and not punish them for something that's not their fault at all."

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