When the art deco marquee at The Centre is turned on Tuesday night, for one of the first times in nearly 56 years, it will represent the culmination of nearly two years of work and $19 million in renovations to transform the largest building in Baltimore’s emerging Station North neighborhood into a 67,000-square-foot arts and innovation center.
Tenants at the former theater at 10 E. North Ave., include the Maryland Institute College of Art and Johns Hopkins University’s film programs, Baltimore Jewelry Center and the Center for Neighborhoods. Charlie Duff, president of the project’s developer, Jubilee Baltimore, said a major video game company located in Hunt Valley is also on the verge of signing a lease to relocate its offices to The Centre.
“When we bought the building we had no specific idea what to do with it. But we had a clear general idea that we wanted this building to advance the goal of creating a vibrant arts space/district in Station North,” Duff said. “We didn’t, at first, have any idea what that meant.”
But the building, which had been a theater that hosted a radio station at one point, seemed to have a mind of its own. The station, in 1939, had built a sound stage for live performances. As it turned out both MICA and Johns Hopkins University, who had been considering co-locating their film centers for about a decade, required a sound stage.
“We didn’t know it when we bought the building; there was drop ceiling in there. We didn’t know we had a sound stage. It turned out that we did,” Duff said. “That’s catching a break.”
Duff said the redevelopment will bring as many as 300 additional people to North Avenue during the day who will be walking the streets, eating lunch and getting used to being in the Station Arts neighborhood, and the project’s backers hope that will help change perceptions about the area.
For years, Station North, loosely defined as the area between the Mount Vernon and Charles Village, suffered from neglect and decline. But since the city has labeled the area an arts district, it has experienced a slow but steady stream of investment from institutions like Johns Hopkins and MICA as well as from some private businesses.
“The transformation of the neighborhood happens as much in people’s minds as out in the tangible world, and there’s nothing that brings strength to a neighborhood faster than having friends go there all the time, and tell you it’s OK, and gossip at parties about it,” Duff said.
Jubliee Baltimore, a nonprofit real estate developer, purchased the property at auction in 2012 after Central Baltimore Partnership brought the project to their attention. The project is financed through a variety of historic and new market tax credits. Reinvestment Fund has invested $6 million in the project through the Living Cities Initiative. Telesis Corp. and Chase Bank have also invested an additional $7 million in the building.
The redevelopment is Jubilee Baltimore’s first nonresidential project and the largest building it has ever done solo. The nonprofit has done about $150 million of residential redevelopment overall.
“When the building came up for public auction, and we were the only bidders on the sidewalk who had ever been inside, when we went inside we realized that it looked disgusting, but it was in good structural condition. But when the auction took place the other people on the sidewalk could only see that it looked disgusting — which it sure did,” Duff said. “So, nobody else bid and we got it very cheaply.”
Tenants in the building, such as Baltimore Jewelry Center, are excited about what the news space could mean for their organizations. The center, an educational nonprofit/makerspace that teaches classes and workshops in jewelry making and metalworking and rents studios, has been in the Meadow Mill development in Hampden. Program officials believe The Centre will provide better visibility.
“We had a pipe dream of being in Station North, because it’s such a creative space in the city … its geographic location is excellent because it’s right in city center, and it’s so close to Penn Station, but just the history of the arts, all different performance spaces, and history of makerspaces in that area make it a really good fit for our model,” said Shane Prada, program coordinator.