One crumbling structure becomes a lesson in urban design for students

Several years ago, I sat down with Ed Burns, writer for HBO’s critically acclaimed series The Wire, to talk about education in American cities. After 20 years as a cop, after co-authoring the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood with David Simon, Burns had become a teacher in Baltimore’s inner city. It was this experience that informed the fourth season of The Wire.

At the time, Burns recounted the multiple challenges facing public education. He spoke not just of teachers and parents, but of the physical buildings themselves. On hot, humid days, he would teach in a decaying school with no air conditioning and tape blocking the drinking fountains because lead was in the water.

How, he asked, did we expect kids to learn in an environment like that?

Now, in a central Baltimore neighborhood that once served as a location for The Wire, a new city public school hopes to change the way school buildings are developed. The Baltimore Design School (BDS), a middle and high school with a curriculum rooted in graphic design, fashion and architecture, has taken over a 120,000 square foot factory building with plans to transform it into a high-tech center for learning by the 2013* academic year.

The structure, built in 1915, had been abandoned for decades after its last tenant, the Lebow Clothing Factory, shuttered the doors, leaving everything—racks of jackets, mammoth sewing machines, buckets of buttons and spools of thread—behind. Over the years, photos from the inside taken by adventurous trespassers captured the ghostly remains, serving as a testament to the general decay of post-industrial buildings in cities like Baltimore.

BDS, which opened in a temporary facility last fall, is one of Baltimore’s new Transformation Schools, a private-public partnership with the Baltimore City Public School system. Unlike a charter school, where the board is responsible for its own facility, a Transformation School falls under the auspice of the school system’s facility management. BDS suggested a unique scenario to the school district: partner with a private developer and turn one of Baltimore’s abandoned industrial buildings back into a productive place.

Construction began this winter on the $25 million renovation project, the result of a partnership between BDS, the school district and Seawall Development, a socially minded company that renovates historic structures in transitioning neighborhoods. The BDS board owns the building and was able to finance at a reasonable rate based on the credit rating of the city school system.

Seawall then came to the table with experience in historic tax credit financing. “With this model, the partner figures out how to make it work and we can leverage our combined resources and look for ways in which the participation of the school system allows the partner to get a better credit score,” says Baltimore City School CEO Andres Alonso.

The school district will lease the building from BDS for the annual mortgage amount (a lesser capital investment than if they had to renovate themselves), and after the building is paid off, the school system will buy it back for $1 and then lease it to BDS for $1 a year.

Alonso hopes BDS will become a prototype. “We want to move away from the old fashioned model where we need to secure financing to buy or renovate through state and city funding,” he says. “That tends to be tremendously expensive for us and it means all of our dollars are tied up in one or two projects.”

The new school, designed by Baltimore architects Ziger/Snead, will include four stories of art galleries, studios, classrooms, computer labs with the latest design software and fabrication facilities. The former loading dock will become an outdoor performance space for fashion shows, while salvaged dress forms and sewing machines from the Lebow factory will become an exhibition honoring the building’s previous life.

A cyber café will provide a blank slate for architecture students to design their own space every academic year. “This school is about design thinking,” says architect Steve Ziger. “It’s about empowering students to see that they can participate in and change their environment.” Ziger says BDS hopes to become a place for training future designers as well as an anchor in the neighborhood.

Alonso has high hopes for the experiment. “I look forward to the day when every school in Baltimore city has plans for the kind of renovations that BDS is doing.”

*This story originally misstated the year the school will open.

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