Rundown, silent, and unadorned, the nineteenth century-Mt. Vernon Mill on a quiet stretch of Falls Road looks like a typical deserted piece of Baltimore’s industrial history. But unbeknownst to passersby, and even some neighbors, the mossy, red-brick buildings there are teeming with life. In the shell of what was once one of the world’s largest makers of cotton duck, an eclectic group of new inhabitants are creating a brand new history of their own.
About ten years ago, artists began renting rooms in 2980 and 2981 Falls Road, using them as low-cost studios. Over time, the warren of grungy work areas has evolved into an intimate, carefully-curated community of fourteen painters, sculptors, glass-makers, draftsmen, wood-workers, graphic designers and musicians, and an arts performance space — a semi-secret society of strangers-cum-colleagues with possibly the best deal in town and the square footage to prove it.
“There’s nothing else like this in Baltimore,” said Dave Zuzulinski, the 26-year-old sculptor and unofficial “mayor” of this low-profile artists’ enclave.
But now, just as their community seems to have gelled, its members are at risk of being priced out by a pending mixed-use development.
The project promises to lovingly restore the historic buildings, fill them with condos and restaurants like nearby Clipper Mill and, inevitably, displace the current tenants. With Baltimore attracting national attention recently for its struggles to create government-sponsored downtown “arts districts,” here’s a little thriving one to the north that sprang up all on its own.
Restaurants, offices and condos with a view
Baltimore developer David Tufaro (of Fells Point-based Terra Nova Ventures) says he is moving forward as quickly as possible with plans to purchase and convert the mill buildings into a residential, office and retail complex that will draw on the historic buildings’ architecture and design, and capitalize on the site’s unique proximity to the Jones Falls.
Tufaro said Mt. Vernon’s location in the city, and yet right by the stream, will make it different from other mill renovations, but that it shares something with all these projects that he likes: “the continuity of use.”
“Here we are 170 years later still using these buildings,” he said. “That’s a wonderful story in and of itself, the constant reuse and reinvention of the buildings.”
Formerly a 19th century cotton mill and then a modern plastic foam and packaging company called Life-Like Products, the properties in question include 2980, 2981, 2990, 3000, 3030, and 3100 Falls Road. The six lots he is hoping to buy, along a leafy part of Falls Road in Hampden, are split between three different owners.
Though several steps remain before the project is entirely approved, it took a big step forward in April, when the Planning Commission quietly approved it for Planned Unit Development (PUD) status. A City Council hearing regarding the Mt. Vernon Mill PUD (Bill 10-0456) is scheduled for today, May 26th, at 1pm.
Tufaro hopes to receive final City Council approval of the PUD in June or July. Ideally, he said, he would complete financing and begin construction towards the end of 2010 or beginning of 2011. Factor in 16 to 18 months of construction, and voila, you’d have a new generation of cotton mill dwellers moving in some time in 2012.
The new Mt. Vernon Mill
· The new 10-acre mixed-use complex would include 87 market rate residential units including studios, lofts, and one and two-bedroom apartments in the main mill building, according to the Planning Commission’s staff report. Tufaro said rentals would be priced between $900 and $2,800 a month.
· 2980 Falls Road, home of the artist studios and the G-Spot “a funky mixed media art space and “audio visual playground,” will likely be turned into eight condos priced from $275,000 to $300,000 apiece, said Tufaro. (The G-Spot, which recently threw a closing party but appears to have decided to stay in business, did not respond to several requests for comments).
· Additional plans elsewhere on the site include office space and one or two restaurants, one of which Terra Nova hopes to be along the lines of Woodberry Kitchen. (The Planning Commission report recommends “a maximum of three Class B restaurant alcohol beverage licenses,” including one for 2980 Falls Road).
· Other potential uses, according to Tufaro and the staff report, include a “high quality liquor store” in the first floor of the decrepit Correlli Roofing building (3100 Falls Road), a bike shop, and a designated bike path along the west side of Falls Road.
· Businesses and organizations connected to stream restoration, the environment, sports, or the outdoors would also fit well on the site, Tufaro said.
· There would be some street parking, Tufaro said, but most would be restricted to inside the old mill building, in an attempt to preserve the historic character of the site. The Planning Commission report said a total of approximately 200 parking spaces will be allowed on the site.
What’s inside 2980 and 2981 Falls Road?
During a recent visit to 2981 Falls Road, I was greeted with a dark, colorful 3,600 square-foot cave of artists’ studios. (2980 Falls Road is slightly smaller). The main hallway boasts a pinball machine, a long row of mismatched mini refrigerators, and a free-standing diner booth.
Doors are covered in stickers; a yellow “wet floor” cone lamp glows in one corner; found objects litter the counter space; art in every medium covers the walls; and artists (and a grey dog named Otis) wander in and out of the quiet rooms.
The largest workroom in the three-story building is a study in organized chaos: graffiti-covered walls, paint buckets, dusty wine racks, coils of extension cords, tires, desks, mirrors, drums, sawhorses, tool chests, speakers, a gold stool, bicycles, buckets of coal, and several motorcycles. A sealed-off doorway inside the workroom leads to what residents believe to be the oldest elevator shaft in Baltimore; behind it is a storage space housing a huge orange forklift. Another floor is the home to an abandoned stripper pole.
The buildings’ kaleidoscopic insides are at complete odds with their drab brick exteriors. An observant driver, however, might detect a scattering of subtle signs that life exists inside: a tray tool; a pickup truck bed full of buckets; a few crummy wicker chairs; a lone DIRECTV satellite dish and mini-barbeque; and an unlit neon sign reading “Off the Grid Studios.”
Gritty grassroots arts incubator
For more than a decade, the buildings have been part of the history of local arts- subcultures, including an important moment in the evolution of the Baltimore music scene.
A musician named Mike Riley and two others moved into the ground floor of 2981 Falls Road on January 1, 2003. What began as a casual living and practice space for a group of guys in bands developed into a full- on venue and headquarters for local punk and hardcore bands. The network of musicians, which fluctuated between 12-15 people, christened themselves “Broasis,” and for the next several years, the consistently-changing roster of bands, which included Ruiner, the Spark, Never Enough, Pulling Teeth and Two if by Sea, among others, performed a total of 20-30 shows before the last tenants moved out in the spring of 2009.
“There were shows with hundreds and hundreds of kids there,” said Rob Sullivan, vocalist for Ruiner, who collected rent for landlord-owner Doug Carroll, and helped renovate and perform repairs for 2981.
“I’m glad that building will get its story told,” he said. “It meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Sullivan.
“The Broasis was most certainly a place of creativity,” said Riley. “We had a living space, practice spaces, a recording studio, a place to host shows for a brief time, and cheap rent all under one roof. What more could a musician ask for?”
The building was not up to code, residents recalled, and a city health inspector said he could shut them down at any moment. Carroll operated under a don’t-ask-don’t tell relationship with tenants until an ill-fated September 2004 show whose noise levels and a 200-plus crowd brought the police and Fire Marshal. The performances fizzled from there, and the real end came after Sullivan moved out in 2008 without being followed by a worthy successor to complete repairs and collect rent.
“It’s sort of depressing when I look back and think about it now,” said Sullivan. “It was a big part of my life.”
Passing the torch
Dave Zezulinksi moved in the same day in April that Broasis left and he more or less took over Sullivan’s role, managing tenants and maintaining the buildings (2980 in addition to 2981).
“I really, really loved the space,” said Zezulinski, “so I took all the money I have – $3,800 in my savings account – and put it all into the space,” which he calls “a piece of shit” before he moved in.
The tenants are all people “interested in unique spaces,” said Zezulinksi, and “my main concern is to be able to make it affordable for everybody.” Here’s what they pay:
A 16×16 studio workspace runs around $300 a month and a 20×20 space goes for $500. Bathrooms and the kitchen are communal, and Zezulinski finds most tenants through word of mouth or Craigslist.
Carroll occasionally checks in, but Zezulinksi (who also works 40 hours a week at Wells Liquors) has become the primary person responsible for day-to-day operations and renovating the battered punk den into the cozy, messy art studios they are now.
“Without me,” he said, gesturing toward the up-to-code wiring and walls and bathrooms, “this wouldn’t exist.”
The end is near?
The current Mt. Vernon Mill denizens regard the prospect of redevelopment with a mixture of resentment and fatalism.
Zezulinksi, who has been working to renovate four more studios and a brand new gallery/performance space slated to open on July 1, is not looking forward to the possibility of leaving if Tufaro’s project causes the character of the community to change, or the rent to rise more than he can afford.
“But unless they keep everything the same, I won’t stay,” said Zezulinski, who recently registered the studios as an LLC called “Falls Road LLC” to help protect the community.
“I won’t raise rents [for the other tenants]. And if they come in and rip out a year’s worth of my work, why would I stay?”
Tufaro said he would welcome the current tenants to remain in the short term—“we’re not going to terminate the leases” — but doubts they will be able to afford it.
“I think it will ultimately lead to displacement and hopefully they will have other places to go,” he said, “but I think this will be a huge net plus for the immediate area and the city.”
Tufaro said he values what the artists do but, as a businessman, he couldn’t subsidize them:
“The cost of historic rehabilitation, under Federal requirements, may not make it possible for [these] uses to continue in the long term because of the rents needed to support those costs.”
Though disappointed at the thought of being displaced, Zezulinski doesn’t necessarily take Terra Nova’s plans personally – or even seriously.
“Personally, I am not against a development,” he said. “If Dave [Tufaro] doesn’t do it, someone will.”
Though “Mayor” Zezulinski thinks redevelopment is inevitable, he doesn’t believe it’s likely anytime soon, given the amount of red tape required to redevelop a historical property.
“I’m not worried but …when it comes time to go, where will everyone go?” he said. “I have no idea. I haven’t even thought about it.”
Baby faced mixed media artist Christopher Attenborough said he is “okay with the transition of the space as long as the community is involved in the process.”
“My main concern is that it wouldn’t be a mixed sort of use area,” said Attenborough. “I think if it is developed there should be a New Urban approach” that includes art studios, galleries, and the current tenants, who make the space unique. Attenborough said that Tufaro is “taking the easy way out” in saying that the current tenants can’t afford to remain in the buildings. “Obviously he’s trying to get the most money per square footage that he possibly can. That’s what [developers] do.”
Spaces like theirs are “always in transition,” Attenborough said, but the Falls Road artists have broken the norm. “There’s “a community that’s starting to happen there now.” The artists not only get along, he said, they’ve also created a rare grassroots working environment that includes everyone pitching in if one of the artists needs help with a project. “Those relationships take time to develop. I think where things could go with this group of people could be a really amazing thing.”
“We finally got settled…and now what’s going to happen?”
Still other artists, like MICA student Scott Messamore, seem quite sanguine about the possibility of leaving.
“I don’t think there is a shortage of places to go in Baltimore. I’m not worried,” he said. “I think it’s good to restore these buildings…The more and more I live in Baltimore the more I think they need to stabilize the boundaries between the pockets” [of development in the city.
Preserving history . . . by developing it?
Tufaro agrees with him. The developer has specialized in historic preservation-oriented development and promises that the properties, some of which are included in the National Register for Historical Places, “will be redeveloped as historic structures, conformant to all the requirements of the state and federal government.”
The Planning Commission struck the same note in their staff report: “Approval of this PUD will aid in the preservation of these historic buildings that may otherwise be targeted for demolition or neglect.”
City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (D-7th District) also supports the PUD, according to City Paper, and recommended it to the City Council on March 22nd. “It’s a vacant structure,” she said. “We can turn it into a useful building.”
But despite its aura of inevitability, this latest attempt to repurpose an important piece of Baltimore’s history still spurs some mixed feelings — and not just among the potentially displaced artists.
Bumping out blue herons and artists?
Case in point: fans of the G-Spot art space. “It would be a shame for the neighborhood to lose such a beautiful and well-kept performance space, especially since there is nothing else comparable to it in size in the area,” said Benn Ray, the owner of Atomic Books and a member of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.
Ray is also concerned that Terra Nova hasn’t contacted the Hampden Merchants Association to let them know about the development.
“My concern would be this: This development is planned and this is the first I’ve heard of it,” Ray said. “In the past… [developers] usually address the Hampden Village Merchan’ Association to let us know what’s going on…No one has said anything to us.”
Zezulinksi and others share Ray’s complaint about Terra Nova not keeping them in the loop. Dan Whiting said he has heard only “rumors.”
Losing their space would be “a shame for artists” who can’t afford commercial-rate space, said Whiting, a custom woodworker with studios in both 2980 and 2981. “Everyone will miss that.”
Tufaro said the criticism about openness is unfair.
“We’re open to talking to anyone. We’re not avoiding talking to anyone,” he said. “It’s been in the newspapers, it’s been posted on the property. We’ve had one public hearing before the planning commission. There’s a public hearing scheduled for May 26th. We’re constantly at the property walking around with consultant, architects and structural and environmental engineers.”
Some neighbors, in fact, welcome the sight of Tufaro and his cadre.
“Everyone loves starving artists, but the building has almost burned down twice while they were there,” said Mark Thistel, President of the Stone Hill Community Association. (He was probably referring to the Broasis era. Rob Sullivan said there was never a fire when Broasis was there.)
Thistel’s group, representing the community of 47 homes above the mill, supports Tufaro’s project.
Other neighbors, like Jen Lyall of Hampden, fear the changes that the redeveloped mill might bring to this quiet and creative pocket of Baltimore.
“When I think of ‘Historical Preservation,’ my definition would not include overpriced loft apartments, chic restaurant, and cramped parking for Mt. Vernon Mill,” Lyall wrote, in an email to the Brew.
Lyall lives off Falls Road near the Jones Fall trail and is worried about the loss of the quiet, natural environment there:
“The area is quite wonderful for biking, there’s a slightly-winding one-lane road that’s a quiet retreat hidden inside the city,” she said. “Blue Heron and black-crowned night herons are commonly seen around the Falls. I walk my dogs each morning on the trail.”
Further down Falls Road, the proprietors of Baltimore Bicycle Works haven’t heard too much about the project but are trying to keep an open mind.
“In general we are excited about the opportunity to breathe new life into the mills,” said Meredith Mitchell of BBW, in an emailed statement, adding that they do have some concerns. Mitchell said they hope that the mill’s makeover includes “affordable housing, locally owned-businesses, and a living wage and benefits for employees.”
“Hampden and the surrounding area,” she wrote, “is known for its eclectic mix of locally owned and operated businesses and we would love to see this development follow in those footsteps.”
Painter Eberhardt Froehlich doesn’t blame the marketplace for putting all those qualities at risk – he just wonders why government doesn’t step in to help.
“In this country, a development of old industry facilities almost always forces out all artists living or working in those spaces,” Froehlich said, via email. “I have seen a more gentle transition only in places [like Germany] where the arts are specifically funded to various degrees either federally or locally.”
We asked Froehlich a question that could be asked about any scheme to revive ailing Baltimore with a fancy redevelopment.
Does it seem wrong or is it just urban evolution, an understandable change?
Here’s his answer:
“The threat of development has caused our community to get together more, and the more we artists feel like a community, the more upsetting it becomes to realize we may have to leave. It is all kind of related. Calling it an ‘understandable change’ is leaving out the cupidity which is probably involved. If the development happens, it means a considerable sum of money has changed hands. We artists have very little to do with that considerable sum, but we have kept the place up, are utilizing it, and are still improving it. I can only hope that this fact plays in at some point.”
The Falls Road artists will be hosting an art exhibit and gallery opening on June 25th at 8pm, on the top floor of 2980 Falls Road. The event will include a show in a newly renovated gallery. Anyone in the Baltimore community is welcome to attend.