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The Walbrook Mill apartments in the 2600 block of W. North Avenue in Baltimore will provide affordable housing for people in Coppin Heights near the Coppin State University campus.
The Walbrook Mill apartments in the 2600 block of W. North Avenue in Baltimore will provide affordable housing for people in Coppin Heights near the Coppin State University campus. (Dan Rodricks / Baltimore Sun)

Until a few years ago, there were five vacant houses and an abandoned mill along North Avenue, just to the west of Coppin State University and the overhead railroad bridge that bears the university’s name. Not a pretty site, by any means, and not a good look for prospective students on college scouting trips with their parents.

In fact, there are stories, have been for years, of families of high school students driving from Hilton Parkway onto North Avenue, getting one look at the approach to Coppin from the west and suddenly making other plans.

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It’s unfortunate. If you have not seen the Coppin campus in a while, or ever, you would be pleasantly surprised at how good the campus looks after major investment by the state of Maryland. “Coppin's new campus on the south side of [North Avenue] is beautiful, almost like the Land of Oz,” Dan Venedam, who works in higher education, wrote me just last week.

But there were these vacant houses along the 2600 block of W. North Avenue, next to the campus, and next to them was the abandoned Walbrook Mill and Lumber Co. and its warehouse and railroad depot. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, urban pioneers who renovated old houses in other parts of Baltimore, far from Coppin Heights, would visit Walbrook lumber. The company was known for making custom-sized windows for historic properties, along with cabinets and doors.

But Walbrook, founded in 1918, left West Baltimore and consolidated its operations in Baltimore County several years ago, with Elliot Zulver, its president, writing this parting shot in a letter to the editor of The Sun: “Crime kept customers away. Letters to city officials regarding sanitation problems went unanswered. Sewer gas problems were never resolved. And lastly, outrageous water bills were received.”

Zulver’s letter was both a complaint and warning about lack of government support for small businesses. Walbrook Mill and Lumber and the area around it, he said, had never been included in an “enterprise zone” or “empowerment zone” or any zone where federal subsidies or tax credits were meant to plant the seeds for redevelopment.

That was then and this is now.

An area of West Baltimore long neglected, despite having a potential anchor for growth in Coppin State, appears to be finally getting some redevelopment traction. The vacant rowhouses are gone. The old mill is gone. A barbershop that was at the corner of North and Braddish avenue moved up the street. And the block immediately to the west of Coppin State is getting a big lift with the Walbrook Mill apartments and retail complex.

The construction of 65 apartments, to be rented at “affordable” or “workforce” rates, is well underway. The developer, Osprey Property Companies, has a commitment from BB&T to plant a branch of the bank there. There will be other commercial space along North Avenue and a food hall, with eight local restaurateurs, is promised.

Now, the construction of one long apartment building is not a game-changer for the Coppin State neighborhood — there are still plenty of vacant properties and low-income families spread across a wide swath around the campus — but the project gives the heights a major lift.

And it serves as a kind of breakout project for the Coppin Heights Community Development Corporation, led by Gary Rodwell, its executive director, its board members and “clergy caucus” of activist ministers. The CDC partnered with the non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services and Osprey to line up city and state financing for the apartments.

And there’s more coming. The old Walbrook property is five acres and falls within a federally-designated “opportunity zone,” the latest iteration of government-hatched plans to lure private investment to the most distressed areas of U.S. cities.

Brian Lopez, executive vice president of Osprey, pointed this out the other day, noting the availability of more space for manufacturing or perhaps urban agriculture.

These “opportunity zones,” or OZs, have been billed as an improvement over earlier plans because the incentives are so much better. Investors who put capital gains in an “opportunity fund” can defer paying taxes on those profits until as late as 2026. Galen Robotics recently moved to Pigtown from Silicon Valley and is considered the first company to bring capital from an opportunity fund into the city.

Patrick McKenna, an investor in Baltimore tech companies and a co-founder of an OZ fund, told me that investment will likely go to communities where at least some redevelopment is already underway. “This incentive isn’t going to create growth, but it can catalyze the organic growth into a sustainable ecosystem,” McKenna said. “You don’t win at three-year, or five-year [investment]. You need the ecosystem to be sustainable and to get enough critical mass so that what you’re investing in will be successful on its own and attract other [investment].”

McKenna hopes to raise about $150 million for OZ real estate investments and, later, additional capital for OZ businesses. And he’s just one player in this new arena.

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There are dozens of OZs spread across Maryland, several of them in Baltimore, where they are most needed and have the greatest potential to create jobs. Can Coppin Heights offer the “ecosystem” that brings in more investment and feeds new growth?

If you stand on the parking lot of Mount Hebron Baptist Church, across North Avenue, and look at the new apartment building, the remaining Walbrook land and the Coppin State campus, a big opportunity starts to come into view.

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