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The Columbus School was converted into 50 apartments during a 16-month renovation that cost $13 million. Raymond Skinnner, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, left, shows Sen. Nathaniel McFadden around the renovated building. (The Daily Record/Adam Bednar)

Columbus School Apartments celebrate opening

When Kevin Bell, senior vice president of The Woda Group Inc., first pitched the idea of rehabbing the historic Columbus School to the mayor, the back roof had already collapsed and a tree was growing out of the building.

The 122-year-old Romanesque Revival building, located at 2000 E. North Ave., was first placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but had been allowed to fall into disrepair since it was closed in the 1970s. But on Wednesday, Bell, city and elected officials celebrated its reopening as the Columbus School Apartments.

“This building was a school. Now it’s a home,” Bell said.

The Woda Group, an affordable housing developer, led the charge to rehab the former school. The structure, which dates back to 1891, now features 50 affordable apartments. The redevelopment of the school took 16 months, cost $13 million and resulted in 68,000 square feet of rehabbed space.

Redevelopment of the building, which The Woda Group co-owns with Housing Services Alliance Inc., was financed by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Hudson Housing Capital, Capital One and Bank of America.

Families making up to 60 percent of the Baltimore median income are eligible to rent one of the apartments. So far eight families have moved into the building, 20 more have been approved for leases and a waiting list for the apartments has started.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said developing quality affordable housing is a major part of her initiative to grow the city by 10,000 families in 10 years. She said she doesn’t want to see Baltimore developed in a way that makes it too expensive for residents who are already living in the city to stay.

“This project is a testament to the transformational power of public-private partnerships,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said that there’s much work remaining to revitalize North Avenue, which has been plagued by blight and disinvestment. But he also expressed hope that projects like the Columbus School Apartments, and The Woda Group’s planned Mary Harvin Senior Apartments will help spur growth in the area.

“We are going to bring East Baltimore back,” McFadden said.

Councilman Carl Stokes also acknowledged that revitalizing this portion of Baltimore will not be easy.

“If you drive through this area you will see a mess, frankly,” Stokes said.

But Stokes also found some reason for hope, such as the planned $9 million streetscape for North Avenue and residents who have stayed and invested in their properties while he said government too often ignored them.

Bell also said that development in the city isn’t always easy. But he said The Woda Group is committed to the city and that projects such as Penn Square Apartments at North and Pennsylvania avenues and North Avenue Gateway at North Avenue and Rosedale Street are examples of that commitment.

“We don’t have to develop in the heart of Baltimore — it’s hard — but we choose to,” Bell said.