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Nelson Kohl Apartments’ backers seek investment without displacement

Wendell Pierce, actor and investor in the Nelson Kohl Apartments, talks at the apartments' opening about his belief that the battle for social justice in the 21st century starts with economic development. (Maximilian Franz)

Wendell Pierce, actor and investor in the Nelson Kohl Apartments, talks at the apartments’ opening about his belief that the battle for social justice in the 21st century starts with economic development. (Maximilian Franz)

When Ernst Valery, 40, started his career in development he was overhauling rowhomes in Philadelphia. Benjamin Kohl, who had been one of Valery’s professors at Cornell University, was taking a job at Temple University and wanted to see his former student’s work in the City of Brother Love.

Valery recalled his former professor examining his projects and expressing disappointment. Kohl disapproved of the fact his pupil’s efforts were displacing residents from neighborhoods.

“We thought you were going to be one of the good ones,” Valery remembered Kohl, who died in 2013, telling him.

The experience turned into a major influence on Valery. Now a principal at SAA | EVI, which describes its mission as “developing real estate and investing in ventures that benefit urban communities,” he aims to build projects that benefit existing residents of city neighborhoods.

On Friday, Valery, a bevy of investors and city officials celebrated the opening of the $25 million Nelson Kohl Apartments in Baltimore’s Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The building is named in tribute to Kohl and another of Valery’s mentors, Mary Nelson.

During the opening ceremony, Valery reiterated his desire to lure investment to communities in a way that avoids displacement and gentrification. Valery is also working on a project in disinvestment-devastated west Baltimore called Station West that’s centered around the West Baltimore MARC Station.

The Nelson Kohl Apartments are avoiding displacement, Valery said, because of the project’s density and the fact it was built on previously vacant city-owned property. While the 103 apartments are market rate, they’re not luxury units, he said, and with various incentives to artists as many as 25 percent of the apartments are being offered at discounts without subsidies.

“This isn’t just about building boxes, bricks and mortar. This is about building communities,” Valery said. “We’ve got to understand development without displacement.”

Concerns about displacement and gentrification have become popular topics in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Those urban centers have been magnets for younger, wealthier residents seeking an urban lifestyle. These new arrivals, however, have caused the cost of living to increase, and new building has pushed out less affluent, often minority residents.

Even in cities such as Baltimore — a former industrial hub battling population loss and a reputation for violence — gentrification and displacement are still concerns. Heavy investment in luxury apartments downtown aimed at attracting new residents from outside the city, and a comparative lack of quality affordable units in neighborhoods farther out from the city center, are emblematic of the inequality in Baltimore, activists say.

Actor Wendell Pierce, an investor in the Nelson Kohl Apartments, tied the need for equitable development to the riots that rocked Baltimore in April of 2015. What many have dubbed “the uprising,” Pierce argued, goes beyond the death of Freddie Gray and is rooted in economic disparity in the city.

“The social justice movement of the 21st century is economic development,” said Pierce, best known for his portrayal of Det. William “Bunk” Moreland on the Baltimore-based television series “The Wire.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh, who while campaigning for the office pledged to bring more investment to the city’s neighborhoods, said the city has the ability to attract new investment and keep residents who stayed through the hard times in place.

“There’s some tools that we have here that can make development easier and keep communities together,” Pugh said.

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