Alyssa Dennis

The Station North neighborhood in Baltimore has been on the brink of revitalization for years. Backing up to the city’s Pennsylvania Station, the district encompasses historically black neighborhoods, a surplus of empty factories left over from Baltimore’s industrial heyday, and sections of North Avenue, a once-vibrant commercial thoroughfare that declined after the 1968 riots. HBO’s show The Wire once used the neighborhood as a ready-made set of urban decay. Today, though, artists have repurposed warehouses for studio and living space, small businesses are opening on North Avenue, and cafés and galleries are again populating storefronts.

It is this seed of renewal that attracted Seawall Development Corp., a Baltimore-based company that invests in undervalued urban properties with the hope that its investment could help tip the scales in a community. “We have a formula of looking for historic buildings in a neighborhood that is somewhat on the edge, where if you were to redevelop a building of any great size you could significantly influence the surrounding neighborhood and make it better,” explains Thibault Manekin, co-founder of Seawall.

In Station North, Seawall is working with local architects to turn a former fabric factory into a public school. Elsewhere in the city, the company has partnered with architects to transform long-vacant buildings into affordable housing for teachers and office space for nonprofits.

Michael P. Buckley, FAIA, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, believes there is a future for architects in just this kind of development. Baltimore is struggling under the weight of over 16,000 vacant buildings and a glut of undervalued properties, and the city is not alone. Communities across the country are contending with devalued real estate, and Buckley believes the time is ripe for architects to step up. “We know we have a difficult financing environment, and we have to make the case for design. Rather than waiting for the economy to rebound, architects must engineer solutions,” Buckley says.

“The power of architects to visualize something needs to be matched by the ability to visualize it fiscally,” he adds. “If architects get empowered to understand the financing part of a project—record cost and revenue potential of design—they get on the playing side of the sandbox.” And with this approach, Buckley adds, the profession could help generate new work in a tough fiscal environment, rather than wait for the market to recover and come to them.

To that end, Buckley developed a certificate program in Asset Repositioning and Turnaround Strategies at UT Arlington. The program gives students the skills to make not only an aesthetic case for a project, but a fiscal one as well. Buckley encourages students to see where they can advocate for design saving money. He points to urban density as an example. “I am working with a very distressed community on a project, and we are going to try to make density appealing and get the city to understand that they have a tool that they can use by dropping the per-unit land cost,” Buckley explains.

Architects could help build business for themselves, Buckley believes, if they learn to not only record cost, but also potential revenue. “If we could get architects to understand that if it’s OK to manipulate visually, it’s also good to manipulate financially—as long as it’s for the good of the architecture—then we could expand the practice of design.”

Seawall relies on architects to take the germ of an idea for a building and turn it into reality, but Manekin says architects can be reluctant to move beyond design. “Typically, we have found that they want nothing to do with understanding the financing. They are busy enough as it is,” Manekin says.

“A few architects dabble with ownership,” Manekin adds. But for the most part, “they tend to sit on the sideline and do as they’re told. They’ve been taught that their role is to follow the developer’s order,” he says.

And this, he says, is a big mistake.

“Architects have great ideas about energy consumption, about lifecycles for buildings, about how to lay out space effectively. Architects should be more vocal,” Manekin says.