Change is Brewing in Baltimore: Historic Brewery Reuse Spurs a Neighborhood’s Revival

With the 2012 National Main Streets Conference just a few months away, we turn to our host city, and the wealth of historic preservation + community development = urban revitalization stories that are unfolding in Baltimore.

One of our favorites is the rehabilitation of the American Brewery “brewhouse” building in East Baltimore. Although it does not have a direct link to a Baltimore Main Streets program, it is an inspiring example of an adaptive use project that perfectly fits its environment, and of the power of utilizing a neighborhood’s existing historic assets to drive its future. Most recently, this decorated rehabilitation project was awarded a Board of Advisors’ Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation at the 2011 National Preservation Conference in Buffalo, N.Y.

The American Brewery Brewhouse was built in 1887 as the Weissner Brewery, the flagship building of a thriving brewery complex that included stables, brewmaster’s residence, storage facilities and pump houses. The brewhouse consisted of a five-story tower making it one of the tallest gravity-fed breweries in North America and a proud landmark in the Broadway East neighborhood. Prohibition prompted its eventual sale to the American Brewery Company in 1933, which operated the plant until 1973 when brewery operations ceased and the brewhouse was vacated. Thus began a forty-year- plus period of vacancy and deterioration, while the neighborhood around it suffered severe unemployment and blight. The conditions were so dire, HBO’s television show, “The Wire” used the building as a backdrop in its opening credits. The building was donated to the city in 1977, but all redevelopment schemes for the brewhouse failed, saddling the building with “white elephant” status and symbolizing the community’s frustration and sense of abandonment.

Then, in 2005, the CEO of Humanim, Inc., a nonprofit social services that provides workforce development and family services training, happened across the building on a scouting mission and fell in love with its mystique, affectionately describing it as a cross between Darth Vader’s Castle and Amityville Horror. Having snuck inside, the building’s vast potential—despite ankle-deep pigeon guano and rotting roof and timbers—was evident to the trespassers, as was the surrounding community’s need for Humanim’s services.

In partnership with general contractor Struever Brothers Eccles & Rouse and a project management firm, Gotham Development, Humanim conducted a $24 million historic rehabilitation of the brewhouse—a novel and daunting departure for the nonprofit. The rehab was funded in part by $7 million in fundraising contributions and $5.5 million in federal historic and New Markets Tax Credit equity from the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC provided Bank of America Merrill Lynch with the tax credits in exchange for equity into the project).

In spring 2010, 250 of Humanim’s employees relocated there—bringing with them their need for restaurants, retail, vendors, etc. –and 40 individuals from the surrounding community were hired. Existing neighborhood merchants report an $180,000 revenue increase since the building opened. Over 1,500 people have received Humanim’s services, including training and job placement services and family education support. Over 200 groups have utilized the Brewery for meetings, films, and various community functions—including the Belair-Edison Main Street organization’s 20th anniversary celebration. These benefits are in addition to the estimated impact of project construction: $12.6 million in household and business income and $1.3 million in state and local taxes. This activity represents a huge boost to an area with 51% percent poverty and unemployment at four times the national average.

Equally exciting is that other development is taking place near the project. Johns Hopkins has a medical complex in development nearby, a light- rail station is in the works, and Humanim is exploring converting the adjacent bottling building into a home for a successful public charter school and program space. The local developer, One Green Home at a Time, completed a block of single-family home rehabilitation projects near the brewhouse which are 100% sold and occupied.

The result? The American Brewery brewhouse is now a clear beacon of hope, and living proof that a community can retrace its past to find its future.

The restored American Brewery Building may be toured as part of a field session at the 2012 Main Streets Conference entitled, Historic Tax Credit Investments in Baltimore. NTCIC staff will lead attendees on a tour of several historic tax credit projects in the city, and discuss how to achieve both economic development and community benefit objectives.