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Development With a Mission? Possible.

Charmington's at Miller's Court. Photo by Arianne Teeple
Charmington's at Miller's Court. Photo by Arianne Teeple
On a damp December day, some faculty and staff from the University of Baltimore took a tour of buildings old and new in Central Baltimore.  When the group arrived at the corner of 26th and Howard Streets, hard hats were in order to see a building that was both old and new.

It was here that Thibault Manekin, a partner in Seawall Development Co. LLC led the group through the rubble and construction dust while sharing his vision of how a vacant tin box and can manufacturing factory would soon be brought back to life as apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofit organizations.

That was four years ago, before a $20 million conversion turned the once vacant building and Remington eyesore into a home for 70 residents, nine nonprofits and Charmington’s café in what is known as Miller’s Court.  It has done the same for an 1866 factory in Hampden called Union Mill – or “Miller’s Court 2.0” as Seawall Project Manager Jon Constable has dubbed it.

The $21 million Union Mill will fill up its office space next month when Fuel Fund of Maryland and Maryland Disability Law Center move in. Six Sewall employees also moved in this month. By April, Union Mill will also house Artifact Coffee, the latest venture from Woodberry Kitchen’s Spike and Amy Gjerde, employees who work for the restaurant owner. (See related story.) “Hundreds” are waiting to snag one of the below market rate apartments at Union Mill and Miller’s Court, Constable says.

“We have a triple bottom line,” he says.  “Our projects must be economically sensible, environmentally sound and socially responsible.  We’re social entrepreneurs who happen to be in real estate.”

Seawall is now about to take its mission of socially responsible development to the surrounding Remington neighborhood and beyond. The company recently purchased a building in Northeast Philadelphia that will be ready in 2014. It also has its eyes on New Orleans, Constable says.

From the beginning, Seawall’s mission was to reach beyond the walls of Miller’s Court.  Since the last tenant left the premises during the 1990’s, the vacant building had been an eyesore and contributed to a perception that the neighborhood’s best days were in the past.
Seawall plans to convert as many as 20 rowhomes to keep teachers in the area once they are ready to move from renters to buyers.

“Our goal is to give Baltimore such a good impression, we’re hoping they’ll want to live in Baltimore and start families,” Constable says.

Many come to teach at a Baltimore City public school, but leave after a couple of years. Seawall hopes that by offering a stress-free housing environment, they’ll consider staying in Baltimore longer.

“We’re making Baltimore extremely competitive in attracting and retaining committed teachers,” says real estate developer Donald Manekin, who founded Seawall in 2007 with son Thibault.

Housing has made an impression on Detroit-area native Aaron Sohaski, one of the Teach for America corps members living in Miller’s Court.  Calling his teaching assignment at Cross Country Elementary/Middle School in Northwest Baltimore “a life-changing experience,” Sohaski says he is grateful to live at Miller’s Court. 

“The person living across the hall teaches at my school, and we’ve really been able to support each other,” Sohaski says. “Special events for residents ease the stress of long teaching days and weeks.”

Describing Remington as an “up and coming neighborhood,” Constable says Seawall liked the area because it is inexpensive and not yet gentrified. Close to Hampden and Charles Village, the neighborhood is home to Charm City Cakes and local watering hole the Dizz.

“Miller’s Court has been a huge asset to our community,” says Judith Kunst, President of the Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA).  “It’s a real improvement over what came before.  The building is beautiful, and the owners are involved in the community.  It’s great to have so many teachers living in the neighborhood.”

A large percentage of the teachers living in Miller’s Court are in Teach for America, Executive Director Courtney Cass says.  “Having so many of our corps members here has been great,” Cass says.  “They can stop by and talk with our staff when they get home.  We have thirty staff in the building, and the boost in morale since moving here has been tremendous.”

Miller Court has spawned new levels of collaboration among the nonprofits located there. They come together on a regular basis for an activity called “office recess.”  Provided by Playworks, a nonprofit that promotes healthy activity in schools, the recess time includes team-building and problem-solving techniques.  Brown-bag lunches in the building also include training activities and opportunities for staff from different organizations to get to know each other.

Says Stacie Sanders Evans, executive director of Young Audiences of Maryland:

“Moving here was one of the best decisions we’ve made.”

Paul Sturm coordinates the Baltimore Nonprofit Leaders Circles and teaches in the nonprofit management program at Notre Dame of Maryland University.  He lives downtown where he feeds his addiction to crab cakes and Berger Cookies.

Photos by Arianne Teeple

Charmington's at Miller's Court.

Courtney Cass of Teach for America

Teacher Aaron Sohaski in his residence at Miller's Court.

Jon Constable, LEED AP with Seawall Development.

The Miller's Court building.

A MICA sculpture made of recycled materials from Miller's Court in the courtyard.

Union Mill photo courtesy of Marks, Thomas Architects Inc.
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