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Donald Manekin takes stock of career

Donald A. Manekin in 2004. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Donald A. Manekin in 2004. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Donald Manekin, sporting a slightly graying beard and wearing a plaid shirt and glasses, comes across more like a professor than a man who spent much of the past 40 years in commercial real estate.

On a recent overcast Friday morning in Remington, he sat in the Miller’s Court mixed-use development courtyard discussing the career that started in his father’s business. He also spoke about what the future holds for Baltimore and the firm he started several years ago with his son.

On Oct. 15, he is scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Baltimore District Council of The Urban Land Institute. The award is given to a leader in the development community whose career has lasted more than 20 years, been involved in all aspects of development and whose projects have included a variety of land uses.

When asked about the personal significance of the award, Donald Manekin instead talked about how the Urban Land Institute should be recognized because the organization’s work improving cities will carry on beyond just his lifetime.

“If you’re going to build sustainable communities it’s not like going through the drive-through window, and getting a quick Big Mac. It’s in some respects like building cathedrals — it takes a long time, but somebody has got to put the shovel in the ground to make those changes occur,” Donald Manekin said.

Sean Davis, chairman of Urban Land Institute Baltimore’s Advisory Committee, said Donald Manekin’s resume reads like a checklist of the qualifications the organization wants from lifetime achievement award winners. But Davis also said it was Donald Manekin’s humility that helped make him an instant lock for the award.

“What happens is the committee gets together and we talk about potential candidates for lifetime achievement award winner and then people throw out names … I can’t remember who specifically named Donald, but everyone said: ‘Yeah, that’s it. Done,” Davis said.

Donald Manekin started his career in development at Manekin Corp., the company founded by his uncle and father, Harold Manekin, in 1946. The firm primarily focused on developing single-story office space, flex structures and research and development buildings around Howard County.

During his time at Manekin Corp. he saw the firm expand from 15 employees in 1975 to 140 employees when he left in 2000 as a senior vice president and partner. The firm sold half of its operating company and a significant amount of its portfolio, creating what Manekin called “reasonable windfalls” for the partners.

That windfall allowed him to pursue other interests, such as starting a small foundation to support school teachers working in rural Western Maryland. It also provided Donald Manekin a chance to serve as the Baltimore City Public School’s interim chief operating officer for two years.

“Again, I thought the first 25 years were terrific, those two years at the school system were just a spectacular way to learn about public education and its importance,” he said.

Eventually, his son, Thibault Manekin, approached him with an idea. After graduating from college, Thibault Manekin had spent years working around the world for nonprofit groups such as United Way and Playing for Peace. He wanted to come home to the Baltimore and set down roots, and he approached his father about starting a commercial real estate firm.

“I hadn’t thought about going back into the business but that’s one of those offers you can’t not accept from your kids,” Donald Manekin said.

In 2007, they launched Seawall Development Co., as a socially conscious real estate development firm. Their first project was Miller’s Court, which converted the former Census Building into a mix of Class A apartments steeply discounted for city school teachers, nonprofit office space and a neighborhood café. The firm would go on to do a similar project at Union Mill in Hampden and worked with partners in Philadelphia on another development in the same vein.

Seawall envisioned the teachers living in Miller’s Court falling in love with Baltimore and buying homes in the community. To help make that a reality, Seawall purchased what Donald Manekin called 30 “slumlord variety houses” in Remington, rehabbed and sold the properties primarily to teachers.

The company has since turned a former tire shop in Remington into more nonprofit office space, restaurant space for Parts & Labor as well as the home of Single Carrot Theatre. Seawall is currently pursuing its most ambitious project yet — the $80 million Remington Row.

“I think our sense of it was real estate was a means to an end. It was a means to meet the needs of teachers, and nonprofits and the needs of the community, who had not had any real economic development in this neighborhood for decades,” Donald Manekin said.

About Adam Bednar

Adam Bednar covers real estate and development for The Daily Record.