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An Audacious Plan for Baltimore's Vacant Industrial Spaces

New “makers spaces” in a struggling neighborhood could bolster the local economy with small-scale manufacturing opportunities.

Andy Cook

It was some tough timing for urban planner Andy Cook as he lined up a tour of vacant industrial properties in Southwest Baltimore late last month, trying to drum up interest among businesses and real estate developers.

The nation had been glued to news of the riots that followed the the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody. People were beginning to understand the despair present in Baltimore neighborhoods that residents themselves declared dead.

The Southwest Baltimore Industrial Opportunity Tour wound through similar landscapes of abandonment, in Mill Hill, Shipley Hill, and as far north as Rosemont, where big companies—and the smaller businesses of butchers, bakeries, and brewers—had long since left. It was audacious to suggest that a collection of 35 dilapidated buildings could somehow begin to fix what had been broken for so long.

But that was the idea. And in the view of the project’s organizers—Baltimore’s planning department, Baltimore Heritage, and Housing Policy Watch—the aspirations were right-sized. Nobody was expecting that some giant employer would move back in; instead, the pitch was to retrofit vacant and abandoned industrial properties for new life as a collection of co-working “makers spaces” for small-scale manufacturing. Multiple small business and start-ups could move in, sharing facilities, equipment, and back-end functions, under one roof.

Bringing the buildings back to life as job centers will hinge on locally owned, small-scale businesses and start-ups. One idea is an apparel-manufacturing incubator that can support the process from fabric design to sewing, to more advanced tech around digital sensing and materials R&D. Another is a ‘Waste-To-Wealth’ incubator that would host a variety of outdoor industrial businesses turning waste materials into new products. The craft food and beverage sector is fertile ground for start-ups, and residents operating businesses out of their homes, whether in apparel or fixing motors and the like, could also move into co-working spaces.

The vacant industrial buildings of Baltimore are ideally suited to this role, says Cook. Like buying a fixer-upper home, the trick is in seeing the potential, in having the vision for what the buildings can become.    

“Some of the buildings we visited have trees growing out of them,” Cook says. “They are in rough shape. It’s going to take some doing.”

(Andy Cook)

In a previous life as a photojournalist, documenting urban landscapes in cities including Detroit, Cook came to appreciate the architectural fabric of once-thriving Legacy Cities. “I think these buildings speak to a grand era, made for industry: There was a lot of thought put into them, beautiful and functional, with incredible brickwork and window treatments. They are a huge part of the character of Baltimore City.”

The kind of work that happens inside would be very different from minimum-wage jobs pushing something down a conveyor belt, he says. Not only would the businesses be run by people in the community, but the jobs would actually match Baltimore’s workforce, where the vast majority lack educational degrees. That will take training and support, and Baltimore is getting help in this regard from the non-profit sector.

“Our overall thesis is that maker spaces traditionally have been places for affluent early-adopters, and we are trying to expand the ambition of such facilities by building a platform that can also support a wide range of educational, entrepreneurial, and workforce development activities,” says Will Holman, project coordinator of the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

The emphasis on training and business development has helped make co-working and maker-space arrangements successful in other cities, says Ilana Preuss, founder of Recast City, which works with developers and city leaders to organize such projects. In Rockford, Illinois, the local Housing Authority partnered with Etsy to create a makers space inside public housing in order to teach residents how to build their craft businesses into a source of personal wealth. In Indianapolis, 3DParts Manufacturing created a program called 1st MakerSpace to bring 3D printers into public schools, providing the equipment and opening up the space to the surrounding community. Other examples include Mixxer in Winston-Salem, The Forge in Greensboro, N.C., and shared shops such as Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C., L.A. Prep in Los Angeles, and a shared woodshop, Osborne Design & Craft, that sub-leases its space and tools to smaller wood-crafters.  

(Andy Cook)

Still, a technology product or catering business seems a long way from the streets where Freddie Gray lived. Invariably, Cook is asked whether there is a certain boutique quality inherent in the kind of businesses envisioned for these old buildings. To that, however, Baltimore has a ready reply: Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, began by toiling in his grandmother’s basement in the city and selling T-shirts out of the trunk of his car. The company is now one of the largest private employers in Baltimore.

“Everything has to start small,” Cook says.

What’s compelling about reclaiming industrial properties is that it isn’t an old-school, big-ticket economic development program. It’s building on the good bones of the city, and engaging in what researcher Alan Mallach calls strategic incrementalism—making targeted reaches rather than searching for the silver bullet.

Little by little, the initiative in Southwest Baltimore might become a counter-narrative against the unemployment and disengagement seen during the riots. Maybe it wasn’t such bad timing after all.

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