Richard May

The Great “Innovation” Rebrand of West Baltimore

Can a group of Charm City residents harness the tech economy to regenerate their neighborhood?

Story by Andrew Zaleski

Photography by Andy Cook

Published on

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On an afternoon in early February, Richard May, the head of a new Baltimore nonprofit, stands braced against the wind and sketches out a vision for West Baltimore. It begins here, on a blighted section of North Avenue not far from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where a graveyard of a public housing project, unoccupied for almost two years, is currently being torn down.

Built in the 1970s, the 27-building complex that came to be known as Murder Mall is being cleared away to make room for a $100 million mixed-use development project that will break ground in one to two years from now. When complete, it will include between 300 and 500 mixed-income apartments, retail and office space, a restaurant, a grocery store, and a 50,000-square-foot hub for tech companies and local entrepreneurs. The developer, P. David Bramble of MCB Real Estate, has floated the idea of opening a community health center on the next site over. It’s an ambitious project and one of a scale not seen in this part of Baltimore in decades, if ever. Yet it’s just the start of what is to come, if May gets his way.

The 44-year-old West Baltimore resident is four years deep into a campaign to transform a swath of the city where vacant buildings are commonplace and median incomes are below $30,000 into an “innovation district” with sleek office buildings, new apartments, restaurants, parks and other amenities targeting thousands of current, and new, inhabitants.

Stretching nearly 7 square miles from Coppin State University in the west to the University of Baltimore in the east, this district would cross several of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray was arrested, and the nearby areas where protesters and police clashed on national news in the tense days that followed his death in police custody.

Demolitions at

Demolitions began at “Murder Mall” late last year. 

The concept for the district, currently dubbed 1,300 Acres (also called Innovation Village), is easy to visualize. May throws out examples like the Boston Seaport, where 200 startups have set up shop in recent years, or University City in West Philadelphia, where computer scientists can look down from office windows to boarded rowhomes that don’t look much different than those found in West Baltimore. But unlike in Philadelphia or Boston, the idea for 1,300 Acres was not born at City Hall or developed over time as universities expanded and grew. Instead, it came from residents, including May, who began to organize around a desire to see investment in the four historic West Baltimore neighborhoods that they collectively called home: Druid Heights, Marble Hill, Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill. In 2013, these residents formed a nonprofit, the Mount Royal Community Development Corporation, to take on small neighborhood improvement projects. One early project had the CDC buying historic homes out of foreclosure and renovating them. As time went on, conversations about dealing with boarded-up houses, trash and open-air drug markets gradually morphed into a conversation about the root of the problems.

“We kept coming back to the same question because a lot of our neighbors were saying the same thing: The real issue was jobs, and livable wage jobs,” May, CEO of the new Innovation Village District nonprofit working to make 1,300 Acres a reality.

The team began to do its homework, reading up on how other cities had tackled these issues. Eventually, they hit the concept of the innovation district: a compact, transit-accessible geographic area where institutions and companies cluster in proximity to startups, business incubators and accelerators. May, who has a professional background in private equity, and other members of the MRCDC quickly realized that many of the same raw elements that power such districts in Philadelphia and Boston also existed in West Baltimore. There was a growing community of entrepreneurs and startups that needed new office space. There were university anchor institutions — Coppin State, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and the University of Baltimore. There was also available, transit-accessible real estate, including the old Murder Mall that had been slated for redevelopment.

By 2014, the CDC was organizing informal community events focused on the redevelopment of West Baltimore’s historic commercial corridors — the corridors now at the center of the 1,300 Acres plan. It was a chance, May says, to “get ahead of the real estate development curve and help shape that curve.” In 2015, MRCDC began shopping the idea of an innovation district to the nearby universities and whoever would take their calls at City Hall. The project has gained momentum quickly. Coppin State and MICA have taken the district branding and run with it, partnering with May’s group on startup competitions and pledging future support. The city, too, is on board and has contributed some money: $100,000 for the district itself, and another $100,000 to help the Conscious Venture Lab, a Howard County startup accelerator that is moving to 1,300 Acres. In December, Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan stood at the site of the MCB Real Estate development and announced $2 million in state funding for the site’s redevelopment.

“This city-state partnership will bring much-needed investment, services, housing and jobs to Baltimore,” said Hogan. “By working with local community organizations, as well as the private sector, transformative projects like this will help ensure that Baltimore’s future is better and brighter than its present or its past.”

But the hard part is just beginning. May knows that there is no guarantee that new development will benefit longtime residents, many of whom are not eager for the higher rents and cultural shifts that it will bring. But he says he will do everything in his power to make sure 1,300 Acres benefits all segments of the community.

“I’m always inherently skeptical, especially being black,” says May. “But what we believe is that every person has talent, every person matters, and that everybody deserves access to economic prosperity. Innovation is one of the ways that can happen, by making sure people have spaces and places where their creativity can come into the marketplace.”

Vacant buildings in West Baltimore

Vacant buildings sit in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood in West Baltimore. 

Channeling Opportunity

On that windy afternoon in February, May took me on an afternoon driving tour. We met at Reservoir Hill’s Dovecote Cafe, which opened in 2016 and is run by three transplants from Oakland, California, who now live just down the street. Aisha Pew, one of the co-managers, described the new cafe as a “community and central hub.”

Reservoir Hill was a natural spot to begin our tour. It is May’s own neighborhood; he settled there with his family in 2010 and to some observers, it is the heart of the district, and the home of a number of its strongest advocates.

Bounded by Druid Hill Park to the north, Penn North to the west, and the Jones Falls Expressway to the east, Reservoir Hill was once the northernmost part of Mount Royal, a section of the city that was quite rural up until the mid-1800s. Even before 1900 the area was becoming more urban, but much of the change in the area above North Avenue — what is today Reservoir Hill — took place over the last century. Large townhouses were subdivided into apartment units, without adequate rehabilitation, to accommodate a swelling population. Over time, redlining practices, prevalent in West Baltimore, altered the demographic makeup of Reservoir Hill, one neighborhood among many that once formed a thriving Old West Baltimore. After the 1968 riots, middle- and working-class black families joined the flight of white families out of the city. Beginning in the 1970s, housing in Reservoir Hill deteriorated, the famed commercial strip along Whitelock Street died out, and more large homes were subdivided into apartment units.

Since 2000, however, a mini-renaissance has taken place. Census figures show that more than 340 new residents have moved in, and the average home price has risen from about $101,000 in 2010 to roughly $178,500 in 2016, according to Live Baltimore data. Governing magazine classified it as a neighborhood in the middle of gentrification, a force May and his Reservoir Hill friends believe can be used to improve city blocks without radically changing neighborhood demographics.

In addition to MCB Real estate’s project, other development partnerships are in the works, May says.

“For us, that’s what this is really all about: making sure residents have access to real economic opportunities,” says May.

The question is how. Innovation districts can be powerful generators of wealth for cities, says Jennifer Vey, a fellow and co-director of the Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking at Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank that has done research on the rise of innovation districts and how to assess their impact.

In particular, they can be great opportunities for economic development in low-income neighborhoods, mainly because they tend to get established in commercial areas that border these neighborhoods, which means high-growth jobs in technology are right next door.

“However, whether or not they create broad opportunity for city residents is contingent upon the stakeholders in the area getting very aggressive about very intentionally connecting people to these jobs,” Vey says. “How do you grow in ways that make people feel connected to these places, where people don’t feel like this is not a place they can relate to, even though they live only three blocks away?”

The innovation district was officially announced in 2016 on a cold January Monday, when a host of city officials and community leaders gathered in the Penn North neighborhood at the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, the exact center of the nascent district. Even those not from Baltimore would recognize the setting. Behind a makeshift stage was the same CVS that had been burned and looted in April 2015, and has since been rebuilt and reopened.

While then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other guest speakers championed the effort that winter day, local residents looked on in confusion. For many, this was the first time they heard the neighborhoods where they live and work were to become part of a new development district. The announcement and what it portended seemed ominous. In a neighborhood like Sandtown-Winchester, where the median income is $19,000 and the unemployment rate is 21 percent, residents did not immediately see how they would fit into a project that seemed designed for white-collar tech workers. They still don’t see.

“We are definitely in support of opportunity and job creation in our community. But what we see is attempted gentrification,” says Ray Kelly. Kelly is an organizer with the No Boundaries Coalition, which has been working since 2008 to create safer streets in many of the neighborhoods that would be part of the innovation district.

Baltimore's Penn North neighborhood

Baltimore's Penn North neighborhood made national headlines when unrest broke out following the death of Freddie Gray. 

Tiffany Welch is the president of the Matthew Henson Neighborhood Association, a community group that represents neighborhoods to the west of Penn North. She is waiting for more information before making a judgment, but her eyebrows are raised.

“It’s not exactly clear what the timeline is, what the aesthetic will look like, or how the communities will look like in it. Until we know those answers, everyone is really skeptical,” Welch says.

May says outreach to various communities has been happening and will continue. He points to events, like last year’s Startup Soiree networking event on Pennsylvania Avenue, last September’s social change hackathon at Coppin State University, and this summer’s innovation camp, currently being organized, as ways that 1,300 Acres is trying to connect local residents, and especially younger residents in elementary school and high school, to new events, people and opportunities.

“Any time you have 50 years of really zero investment at scale in an entire side of the city, there’s a lot of distrust on the ground,” May says. “But when you look at an entire side of a city that doesn’t have access to growth aspects of the economy, we can’t win as a city until we provide opportunities for everyone.”

Local residents agree that jobs and economic opportunities are needed, but community leaders remain fearful of displacement. Who will be forced to leave, either because they can’t find a job or they can’t afford their home anymore? Who will miss out on the new opportunities created by this innovation district?

“Of course gentrification is going to be my biggest concern. It is real. It is happening,” says Ericka Alston-Buck, founder of the Kids Safe Zone and Family Support Center.

Founded by Alston-Buck just one month after the April 2015 riots, the Kids Safe Zone is now an 8,000-square-foot after-school center that sees hundreds of kids ages 5 to 17 walk through its doors to do things like play Xbox games, read books and get homework help throughout the week. It’s just blocks from where the initial announcement about the innovation district took place. After a rocky start — Alston-Buck says she, like Kelly, had no idea why the mayor and other officials had gathered one year ago in Penn North — she plans to participate in the summer innovation camp that 1,300 Acres is sponsoring. Activities in science and technology will take place at multiple sites, with the Kids Safe Zone being one of the stops. Alston-Buck says she met with May shortly after demolition began at what will be Madison Park North last December, and that he was open and willing to work with neighborhood groups.

Ericka Alston-Buck of the

Ericka Alston-Buck of the Kids Safe Zone visits with her husband and son in her office. 

“He told me, ‘There was no way I was going to come to Sandtown and say, hey we’re Innovation Village, and we’re going to do this, that, and the other.’ So that gave me a buy-in with Innovation Village,” says Alston-Buck, who’s also independently raising funds to build a makerspace in Sandtown that would include a technology lab, entrepreneurship center, recording studio and coffee shop.

Back in February, during our driving tour of the district, May made sure to steer down Eutaw Place, a street that knifes through two neighborhoods that seem worlds apart.

To the east is Bolton Hill, where the median home value is $360,000. On the other side is Madison Park, where the median household income is less than $20,000. As we drove, May spotted a young boy with a backpack walking in front of Pedestal Gardens, a federally subsidized housing complex. Across the street he pointed out a building, a 28,000-square-foot vacant structure that could, eventually, be redeveloped as part of 1,300 Acres — maybe as a job training center, maybe as a startup incubator. Whatever it might be, May references the boy with the backpack, and says his litmus test is the same.

“If you’re black or brown in this city, and you feel like you can look at a building from the outside and say, ‘That’s for us too,’ that’s half the battle,” he says. “We really believe that people in West Baltimore deserve those same opportunities that we’re seeing in other parts of the city.”

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Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia.

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Andrew Cook is a photographer and writer. His work moves between fine art and editorial, focusing consistently on issues of contemporary urban life. He has published two books of photographs and contributes regularly to Next American City. Cook will be enrolled at MIT in the fall as a candidate for a Masters of Community Planning. Until then, he will be making sandwiches in the woods of Vermont.

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