In Cop­pin Heights, a big op­por­tu­nity comes into view

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks

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.

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.

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 comes into view.


The Wal­brook Mill apart­ments on W. North Av­enue in Baltimore will pro­vide af­ford­able hous­ing for peo­ple in Cop­pin Heights.

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