A few weeks after the Freddie Gray disturbances at North and Pennsylvania avenues in 2015, developer James Riggs deliberated whether he and his firm should embark upon a $21 million project to resurrect a beleaguered city block a mile away.
“I stepped back, considered all the bad publicity, and thought yes, we need to do this,” Riggs said this week as he walked through a nearly complete complex of 65 new apartments, a mix of affordable and market-rate rentals on West North Avenue adjacent to Coppin State University.
“I never looked back,” he said of his venture, now being marketed as Walbrook Mill by his Osprey Property Co.
He pointed out that a new BB&T Bank branch is open at Braddish and North avenues, the first commercial tenants in his project. A construction crew is completing a food hall to be anchored by Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, which also operates at the Broadway Market in Fells Point. His first residential tenants will arrive in a few weeks.
“The food hall is what makes this project transformative,” Riggs said. “Walbrook Mill will be more than just where people live, although that’s a great goal. We want to preserve a retail presence on North Avenue. We want to become a destination for people to come and have a meal and maybe listen to some music. So far, we’ve had rental interest for more food spaces than we have available.”
His mission is to fill a retail need in West Baltimore that is not being met currently. He envisions Coppin State students and faculty as potential customers for his new food hall and its vendors.
“We looked around and saw a handful of restaurants in the Coppin-Walbrook-Mondawmin area,” he said. “The area is definitely underserved, and we want to change that. Neighborhood input in the project said that there was a need here for more food services."
Riggs is working with the Coppin Heights Development Corp. and its director, Dr. Gary Rodwell. He’s also working with Neighborhood Housing Services, a long-established Baltimore advocacy group.
“There are 65 vacant properties in the three blocks west of Walbrook Mill,” said Dan Ellis, director of Neighborhood Housing Services. “Our biggest challenge is assembling those rowhouses from their owners. Another $15 million will fix them.”
Riggs’ firm, Osprey, acquired the five acres for the project in 2018, a small industrial campus where commercial lumber saws hummed and skilled millwrights once made custom windows and doors.
Members of the Zulver and Cordish families founded the Western Mill and Lumber Co. in 1918. Its name derived for the old Western Maryland Railway, now CSX, whose tracks run alongside the property. The firm later changed its name to Walbrook Mill and Lumber.
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While the apartment house facing North Avenue went up in 2019, several of the old mill and warehouse structures at the rear of the hilly property were maintained. There are no plans at present for their conversion.
“The old lumber warehouse could be a great site for a workforce development use that would provide jobs for the neighborhood,” said Riggs as he led an informal tour this week. “We are actively seeking users and developers for the buildings.”
The Walbrook Mill was a go-to destination when an old house in Baltimore needed an odd-size window, door or piece of millwork. It was a rendezvous of home renovators in the 1970s when the city had a flourishing dollar house homesteading program.
The Zulver family closed the mill about a decade ago. Osprey bought the site and acquired five adjacent rowhouses so that its plans for a new Walbrook Mill apartment development could be accommodated.
Sitting alongside the old Western Maryland rail tracks is a rustic two-story stone-and-brick structure that served the mill.