Developers are working with the Southwest Partnership to restore abandoned buildings, including two missing their facades, in the 1500 block of West Baltimore Street.
Developers are working with the Southwest Partnership to restore abandoned buildings, including two missing their facades, in the 1500 block of West Baltimore Street. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Less than 15 minutes into a midday ride-along with Michael Seipp, my expectations are confirmed: The man really knows his territory — the abandoned rowhouses, the old theaters and boarded-up storefronts, the schools, the churches, the developers and the properties they own, the guys who sell weed, the kids who run drugs, the people who keep their blocks clean, the traffic problems on West Fayette Street, where to get good Peruvian food (Primo Chicken, 1224 W. Lombard), where to get great shrimp-and-grits (Hey Daddy’s, 1636 McHenry) and the name of the carpenter who built the wood-frame house at 1504 W. Baltimore in 1843.

It’s all in Seipp’s head because he works long hours as executive director of the Southwest Partnership. He came out of a brief retirement from a long and varied career in government and nonprofits to take the job a few years ago. For a guy of 68, with a lot of miles in community organizing, economic development, historic preservation and social services, he’s still enthusiastic about rebuilding Baltimore.

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So we drive through parts of the SWP’s seven neighborhoods — Franklin Square, Mount Clare, Poppleton, Pigtown, Union Square, Barre Circle and Hollins Roundhouse — for an update on the organization’s efforts to restore homes and businesses. There are about 22,000 residents in the area. Seipp and his collaborators want to see a lot more. This is a part of town where homeowners grew tired of abandonment and blight, tired of seeing investors buy properties and do nothing with them. The partnership formed in 2012.

First stop: The 300 blocks of North Stricker and North Gilmor. The SWP is about to acquire every last vacant rowhouse, 18 altogether, to make each block fully occupied. Seipp found what he calls “a friendly developer” and money to subsidize the restorations.

Next, we drive to the 1500 block of W. Baltimore St. and the dilapidated remnants of what was once a thriving retail and entertainment district. It’s a dreary stretch. Seipp starts pointing to buildings, including two missing their facades. As bad as they look, Seipp found developers for the buildings and the financing to fix them up.

“We spent the last two and a half years helping developers who we think can turn Baltimore Street around,” he says, then points to what was once the Capitol Theater, converted long ago into other uses. “We bought it and sold it to a development team called Social Impact Development. Neat group of guys.”

Now Seipp points to 1504 W. Baltimore, a small, wood-frame house, known as the Malachi Mills house, built 176 years ago by a free black man who was a carpenter and cabinet maker.

“We’re turning it into a museum,” Seipp says. “We don’t have title to it yet, but we should soon, and we have grant money to stabilize it. Then we’ll start a fundraiser campaign to turn it back to what it looked like in 1843. … We found a friendly developer to buy 1506, too.”

In the 300 block of S. Gilmor, Seipp says: “We are within weeks of getting title to 10 of the vacant houses on this block. We have the subsidy money, and we have a developer.” He turns a corner and adds: “We are about five months from getting title to all [12] of the vacant houses in the 1600 block of McHenry.”

He takes me into the 300 block of South Woodyear, a cheerful stretch of Formstone-covered rowhouses between McHenry and Ramsay.

“We assigned a staff person to knock on doors and get people engaged in this neighborhood,” Seipp says. “And this block won our Best Block of the Year award. These folks worked their asses off to keep this place clean and have block parties.”

Now Seipp pulls up to an abandoned recreation center on West Saratoga and wonders why it couldn’t be the headquarters for a sports-and-fitness group that some SWP members formed. “We asked the city if we could get a 30-year lease on it,” Seipp says. Why not, right?

Back on West Baltimore, in the 1000 block near Hollins Market, the storefronts are remarkably new and bright. Signs in the front windows offer space for rent. “The owner, Cecil Clarke, has really worked hard,” Seipp says. “He’s got 30 apartments upstairs, too. He just started marketing them.”

We finish the tour a block away, in front of the old Lord Baltimore Theater, a huge structure that opened in 1913 with seating for 1,000 patrons. It has been empty for years.

“We now own it,” Seipp says. “We just finished stabilizing the whole building. We’d like to put something in there to introduce the kids in the neighborhood to alternative employment or career opportunities.”

It might be a place where carpenters can teach their craft. Or maybe it will become a culture and performing arts center.

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It’s now a little after 1 o’clock, and Seipp expects to meet the actor Lawrence Gilliard Jr. at the theater so they can talk about raising funds for the project. Gilliard is a Baltimore School for the Arts graduate. His mother still lives here. Seipp asked him to help turn the Lord Baltimore into something grand again.

“I said to him, ‘I gotta raise $10 million,’ and he said, ‘OK, we can do that. I’ll chair your board.'”

Gilliard shows up on time, and he and Seipp walk around the inside of the dark, cavernous theater with flashlights, talking about all the possibilities.

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