From derelict to delightful

A boarded-up building is reborn as a day care center and more

October 10, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun reporter

The Rev. G. Stanley Steele remembers the first time he saw the low-slung building on a prominent East Baltimore street corner.

Once an auto services center, and later a succession of grocery stores, the building had been vacant for several years. Boards blocked the doors and windows, and had been covered with graffiti and faded posters for all kinds of events. The parking lot out back had become a dumping ground for trash and discarded furniture. Inside, the building was dark, dank and malodorous.

"I saw a derelict everything," said Steele, senior vice president of housing and community development for Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries.

But he also envisioned an opportunity to transform the cavernous space at North Avenue and Broadway at the nexus of three troubled communities into a spot for crucial neighborhood services -- and to signal his Pennsylvania-based organization's broader commitment to community renewal.

Today at 2 p.m., city and state officials and community leaders will gather at the corner to celebrate the realization of that vision.

Called Diakon Place, the $4 million overhaul -- $3.4 million from the faith-based group, the rest from the city and state -- includes a state-of-the-art day care center, offices for the organization's outreach programs and space for additional tenants to be named later.

"We want to create a vibrant space in the midst of communities that are struggling," Steele said yesterday. "It's a visible way to show a commitment, to say we're willing to come and begin the investment. Hopefully, we can be a catalyst."

Those who have remained along the spotty stretch of East North Avenue near the facility are quick to grasp the meaning.

"It is another indication of a community coming back to life," said Joanne Martin, president and co-founder of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum across the street, which is undergoing its own expansion. "What each of us have in common is a commitment to staying here and making things better."

Erich March, vice president and general manager of March Funeral Homes and vice president of the East North Avenue Community Development Corp., said Diakon Place represented the most significant development along the corridor since Walgreens opened across from the Eastside District Court building down the street at North Avenue and Harford Road.

"I think it's the jumpstart we need to get more development on North Avenue," he said.

It was March who first told Steele about the vacant building in January 2005. (March joined Diakon's board in August).

At the time, Diakon was looking for new space for its KidzStuff day care center that had operated for years in West Baltimore. Even by doubling the capacity for the number of children that could be served to 140, the space was far more than a day care center required.

But Steele was intrigued by the openness of the interior space -- and the accessibility and visibility of the building.

In June last year, the Lutheran ministry bought the property for $1.4 million, and the reconstruction project began a year ago.

Today, the day care center, which is to begin operating Monday, is the most complete and striking part of Diakon Place. With a drop-off point in the rear of the building, where new playground equipment of vibrant reds and yellows shines in the midday sun, the facility serves infants as young as 6 weeks. It has computers and cable television for preschoolers, and before- and after-care for school-age kids.

Yesterday, Tiffany Thompson, a city social worker, came by to sign up her 1-year-old daughter, Taysia, who had been in a private home day care center.

"I wanted her to be in a well-managed facility," Thompson said. "I can't wait until Monday comes."

Besides the money for the purchase and renovation, Diakon is pledging $1 million annually in support for the day care facility, family services and community development operations, Steele said. The group is also committed to providing up to $2 million a year to buy and renovate properties on the east side, initially in the Madison East End neighborhood east of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, he said.

And the group is seeking tenants for the remaining space in the building. At the top of the list is a sit-down restaurant, in an area with a concentration of fast-food joints and carryouts -- "Every community needs a place where people can sit down and talk," Steele says -- and a bank and financial counseling center.

The idea is to affect people, not just buildings, he said.

Diakon Place -- and the activities there -- "will impact many East Baltimore neighborhoods," he said.

"These are the communities that don't get the hype," he said. "But there are people who have lived here for decades, who have struggled, who have fought that deserve investment as much as the Cantons, the Federal Hills, the Locust Points, the Hampdens."

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