Seawall Development plans to turn the urban tide.
Jon Constable walks around the Remington neighborhood he’s helped to revive, not like he owns the place but like he’s happy to be part of the upbeat scene. He smiles and greets everyone he encounters, from a parking attendant to likely residents to the president of the Johns Hopkins Health System.
“When we came into this neighborhood, for us it was all about listening,” says Constable, 40, a partner at Seawall Development Co. “Developers get pegged as telling people what the plans are, but we make sure we ask, listen and listen some more.”
Founded in 2007 by dad-and-son duo Donald and Thibault Manekin, Seawall Development is made up of social entrepreneurs looking to effect change through real estate development.
Since its launch, the company has been responsible for renovating and developing more than 450,000 city square feet, but it may be best known for revitalizing Remington. The neighborhood is located east of the Jones Falls Expressway and is part of the National Register of Historic Places.
“We are big believers in urban infill and historical renovation. These are beautiful buildings with beautiful bones,” says Constable, who started working at Seawall after receiving his master’s degree in real estate from Hopkins. “There are new, shiny buildings all over the world. We like redevelopment because it retains the city’s history and authenticity while bringing modern ideas into it.”
Miller’s Court — which is both an apartment and commercial building — became Seawall Development’s first revitalization project in Remington. In 2009, Seawall finished renovation on the 80,000-square-foot structure that was built in 1874. The central goal? They wanted teachers to have a beautiful living space at an affordable price.
“Donald Manekin spent time as interim COO of Baltimore City Public Schools and there was a rotating door of highly qualified teachers who were coming to the city through programs like Teach for America,” says Constable, who has two children, one of whom goes to Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School. “Our goal was to attract and retain teachers and our tool to do that was through real estate.”
To ensure teacher satisfaction, Seawall offers discounts to Baltimore City instructors living in Miller’s Court. It also invites them to request the types of amenities they are looking for in a residential building.
“It was put together by the people who were going to live there,” Constable says. “The amenities are very deliberate and driven by the user, such as a resource room so teachers don’t have to go to stores to do their copying, conference rooms and office space for nonprofit organizations like Teach for America.”
What also came out of Miller’s Court was a sense of community. The building was pre-leased and the popularity led Seawall to develop Union Mill, a similar property in Hampden.
“It’s been amazing to see the support system unfold. These teachers have a difficult job and they don’t have to be in an isolated situation,” Constable recalls about the opening of Miller’s Court. “It was wild we found this niche. The redevelopment of Miller’s Court was the catalyst for our future endeavors in this neighborhood.”
Since Miller’s Court, Seawall has converted the Mr. James Tire Shop, built in 1924, into a theater space, restaurant and office building, renovated dozens of row houses that have been sold mainly to teachers wanting to stay in Baltimore and built Remington Row — Seawall’s largest commercial space to date.
Created from the Greater Remington Improvement Association’s Master Plan — which identified Remington Avenue as the main commercial area of Remington — Remington Row was completed in August 2016. It boasts 108 apartments, a hair salon, a pharmacy, a bank, a dry cleaner and Johns Hopkins Community Physicians office.
“We did new construction for Remington Row because that made sense, but we made sure it fit into the look of Remington,” says Constable.
In December 2016, just four months after the completion of Remington Row, R. House, the newest revitalized building in Remington, opened its doors. Created in the former Anderson Automotive building, also built in 1924, R. House is a food hall that serves as a launch pad for new chefs.
“Baltimore is a food city and one of the most exciting culinary places in the country,” says Constable. “We wanted to do for chefs what we were doing for teachers. The barriers of entry to open brick and mortar shops are massive. This was such a cool opportunity to break those barriers, shrink that initial investment and let chefs launch their ideas.”
Remington’s master previously had included a place for food and beverage, making a concept like R. House the perfect fit. Above the food hall are office spaces, which are home to many businesses including Seawall Development and Allovue, a multimillion-dollar education finance company that uses technology to help school districts budget, manage and evaluate their spending.
“Talk about meeting an unmet need in the community,” says Jess Gartner, CEO of Allovue. “R. House is packed from morning to night every day of the week. It’s a diverse crowd, which goes to show there is a lot of energy and interest in this community.”
For Gartner, Remington is more than just a place to run her business — it’s home. A New Jersey native and University of Pennsylvania graduate, Gartner came to Baltimore in 2009 as a Teach for America corps member and was one of the first people to live in Miller’s Court.
“I had a rough first year in Baltimore,” says Gartner. “It was my first year out of college and my first year teaching. [But] I felt a real kinship with the tech community here and felt they were people who were trying to build things that improved the world using technology and innovative change to solve hard problems.”
Gartner began thinking about how she could apply technology to the problems she saw in her classroom and school districts, recognizing how budgeting can impact students’ success. She realized Baltimore was a good place to enact change, and in 2015, Gartner brought her education finance technology to market.
“I felt Baltimore was a place I could do anything,” says Gartner, who has since raised nearly $9 million in capital, hired 22 employees and shared her technology with about 20 states. “In this city, people are trying to solve real social systemic problems. There are plenty of real challenges to apply intellect, and with that realization Baltimore’s ‘problems’ are reframed as an opportunity to do something different, innovative and creative.”
Because of her love for Remington, connection to Miller’s Court and excitement about the revitalization efforts, Gartner knew office space above R. House was the perfect place for Allovue’s headquarters.
“When I first came to visit R. House, it was still the auto body shop,” remembers Gartner. “It was a solid concrete building and I loved the idea of being able to create a beautiful, fun, inclusive and modern office space in the building where I used to get my car fixed. It really brings things full circle in the neighborhood.”
Gartner recently purchased a home in Remington and says she couldn’t live and work in a better place.
“I feel like I live in a total dream neighborhood,” she says. “I can roll out my front door and there is everything I need in a two-block radius. I got rid of my car and live a pedestrian life. It is a really diverse neighborhood with people who are just moving in and people who have lived here for 30-plus years.”
It’s those longtime residents who can be skeptical about the revitalization efforts. According to Michael Braverman, commissioner for the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development, revitalized areas experience less crime and better home values, but there is an ongoing threat of gentrification.
“The city is cognizant of and takes steps to alleviate the risk of displacement, which could occur through revitalization efforts,” says Braverman. “In short, as revitalization strengthens local housing markets, home values and rents rise, which can create affordability issues for current or prospective residents.”
Seawall Development is incredibly cognizant of the risk and concern surrounding displacement and takes the matter seriously.
“The biggest downside is the unintended collateral damage that comes because of the success of these projects and we are doing everything in our power to mitigate it,” says Constable. “We never intended on having people left behind or displaced. No matter how hard you try and do the right thing and do good, there is a double- edged sword, and we are working with the community to try and attack the edge of that sword.”
To date, Seawall Development has invested approximately $150 million into revitalization efforts and owns more than 12 acres to be developed in the future, demonstrating the company’s commitment to bringing both business and beauty to this city within the city.
“One thing Baltimore has is authenticity,” says Constable. “The cool thing about reuse and revitalization is to provide areas with new things while retaining some of that authenticity. There is a ton of positive stuff happening in the area and it’s exciting for people to come to Baltimore and see those unique hidden gems.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
For more information on Seawall Development, visit seawalldevelopment.com.