Trees grow through the masonry walls, and sunlight — and rain — pour through holes in the roof at a sprawling East Baltimore warehouse, where printers once produced maps for National Geographic.
But when Karen D. Stokes looks at the old A. Hoen & Co. complex, she sees a courtyard with exposed steel beams and white lights that will host community events, job training, entrepreneurs and college courses — and serve as a catalyst for growth in a struggling neighborhood.
The $26 million rehabilitation project, led by the nonprofit that Stokes runs, Strong City Baltimore, and developers Cross Street Partners and City Life Historic Properties, is expected to get underway in the fall. Crews already are cleaning up chemical pollution from a vandalized transformer and stabilizing the structure, which sat empty for more than 35 years on East Biddle Street.
The 85,000-square-foot complex will become home to Strong City, the former Greater Homewood Community Corp., a community development organization now based in Charles Village. Stokes said the nonprofit is working to bring in a cafe, a writer's cooperative, Morgan State University classes and entrepreneurs looking for shared office space.
"We wanted our presence in a place to help transform a community," Stokes said.
The renovation is being financed by a mix of public and private money, including a mortgage. The city recently sold the Hoen building to the developers for $200,000 and approved a $500,000 grant to aid stabilization and cleanup efforts. The state contributed $400,000 from Project CORE, Gov. Larry Hogan's redevelopment initiative.
The project also is receiving state and federal historic tax credits and new market tax credits aimed at drawing investment to distressed communities.
Strong City, which will own the building, has been fundraising for the project but still must raise about $5 million.
Stokes said the investment will help knit together revitalization efforts in the Middle East, Collington Square and Broadway East neighborhoods. To the north is the renovated American Brewery building, home to Humanim, a nonprofit that offers employment services among other programs. Under construction to the west is the Food Hub, an urban farming and commercial kitchen space. To the south is the ongoing massive East Baltimore Development Inc. project near the Johns Hopkins Medical campus.
Ella Durant, president of the Collington Square Neighborhood Association, has lived in the area for 65 years. She said she is thrilled to see the city invest in East Baltimore.
"Our tax dollars are being spent," she said. "We may as well see positives from it."
Durant and her husband, Bruce, bought the house she grew up in. Other homeowners have moved away or died. Transient residents filled some of the homes; others have been abandoned.
Her family was committed to the neighborhood, looking to serve as anchors amid the decay. Durant said her husband has confronted drug dealers, and on one occasion their van was shot up.
They helped form the neighborhood association 20 years ago, she said, and "little by little the negative behavior began to decrease."
Despite the improvements, Durant said, the old Hoen complex stood as a colossal eyesore for decades.
"A vacant building takes down the value of everything around it," she said. "There has been interest in the Hoen building many, many times, so people weren't too enthusiastic about believing this was different. But when we were approached, we could tell this was different.
"Once people began to see the improvements taking place, they will begin to say, 'Oh, I think I want to live there. The Collington Square area is a hidden gem."
Lindsay Thompson, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School, said the public financing helps address longstanding disinvestment in the community.
Thompson teaches a course called CityLab, in which Carey students work with community and business leaders in struggling Baltimore neighborhoods to help devise growth plans. Hopkins also is involved in EBDI, the 88-acre redevelopment project not far from the Hoen complex.
Thompson said the Hoen redevelopment will help generate wealth in the neighborhood. And tenants such as the job training center and writer's group will help community members reach their individual potential.
"I am for any development they can do," Thompson said. "The whole city is full of untapped treasures and jewels that have not been polished for a while."
John Renner, vice president of development for Cross Street Partners, is confident the Hoen redevelopment will be successful. The developer was also part of the conversion of the historic American Brewery building on North Gay Street for Humanim, and one of the firm's principals is involved in the Food Hub project at the site of the old Eastern Pumping Station on East Oliver Street. Ziger/Snead is architect on the Hoen project.
"The Hoen Lithograph project involves all the elements we like in a project — a terrific nonprofit partner, public sector and community support, the opportunity to influence broad based neighborhood revitalization and, of course, a magnificent historic building in desperate need of repair," Renner said in a statement.
The Hoen lithography company, known for its full-color art reproductions, maps, medical charts and diagrams, operated for 146 years. Its original location was near City Hall; after a fire in 1901, it moved to Biddle and Chester streets. The business closed in 1981.
Inside the building, crews are cleaning out the hazardous materials that leaked from the vandalized transformer, patching holes in the floor and stabilizing the trusses, some of which weigh as much as a Toyota Camry.
Stokes said Strong City wants to rebrand the complex as the Center for Neighborhood Innovation and move in by December 2018, a few months before the nonprofit's 50th anniversary.
The goal, she said, is to build off of the neighborhood's assets. Local hiring is a priority, as is community building, spurring affordable housing construction in the area and incorporating feedback from local residents. The organization has hosted two community meetings so far.
Strong City has an operating budget of $3.6 million and serves as the fiscal sponsor for nearly 100 organizations, bringing a total of $10 million under its financial control. The nonprofit runs the 29th Street Community Center, operates an adult learning center and is the largest sponsor in Maryland of antipoverty workers with AmeriCorps VISTA.
City Life Community Builders plans to offer construction industry training at the center, and the Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road near Lake Roland is exploring the possibility of forming a writer's cooperative in the space.
Morgan President David Wilson said Hoen presents many opportunities. He said school officials are in preliminary discussions with Strong City to bring continuing education classes to the Hoen complex as well as active students for classes and volunteer work.
First, Wilson said, the university must consider what public or private financing could be involved to help stretch its budget.
"We have gone out a couple of times on tours of the building," Wilson said. "We are impressed with the proposed renovation and redevelopment plans. We see great potential."
Kevin Davis, president of the Broadway 1000 Block Association, lives about a half a mile from the Hoen complex. He said he has heard little about the project.
Davis, who lived in the Middle East neighborhood for 17 years, said he is hopeful the project increases property values and leads to jobs for the residents. But after watching EBDI relocate hundreds of residents to build biotech research labs and offices, he's skeptical.
EBDI launched 15 years ago to transform an 88-acre swath of land north of Johns Hopkins Hospital into a new employment hub and mixed-income community, which involved relocating residents from the area. Raymond Skinner, the project's president, said EBDI welcomes new projects like the Hoen renovation and Food Hub north of the tracks and sees them as a positive sign of continuing transformation.
Amid the transition, some in the community still point to their dissatisfaction with the relocations, but Skinner said the affected families were given benefits that exceeded the minimum required by the law and that EBDI did "everything possible to make the process as positive as it could be for the affected families."
Some families were able stay in the area and move into fully renovated homes, he said.
"Given the circumstances EBDI believes it handled the relocation in the most responsible way possible," Skinner said.
Davis hopes Strong City puts the residents' interests first.
"I do see a lot of improvements in the neighborhood," Davis said. "I don't necessarily agree with how Hopkins and the city went about it, but that's water under the bridge."
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.