Until recently, neighbors of 814 N. Collington Ave. — what used to house one of Maryland Institute College of Art satellite campuses — used the three-floor building as a community space.

Community organizers from the CARE, McElderry Park, and Middle East neighborhoods often flocked to the basement and the first floor, once transforming them into a film festival screening room and often using them for a communal art exhibition with paintings, quilts made from repurposed fabric, and wire sculptures. On one occasion, they used the building to display the artwork of kids and teenagers from East Baltimore, who photographed their community and neighborhood.

But the building is empty now.

The lease ended in October and the college, citing financial issues that led the institution to downsize its staff and offerings, decided not to renew it. East Baltimore Development Inc., the corporation that owns the building, is currently looking for a broker to sell the property. EBDI is a nonprofit formed by Johns Hopkins institutions, Baltimore-based foundations, Baltimore City government and state government in 2002 to redevelop 88 acres adjacent to the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I don’t know of another place that [was] cultivated for specifically art,” Cynthia Gross, president of CARE Community Association, said. “Especially as social action in East Baltimore.”

Gross is part of 814 North Collington Coalition, a group representing different community associations that are hoping to continue to use the basement level of the building. EBDI’s board, which had already approved the sale of the building in June, agreed to wait until the community came up with their own proposal before putting the building on the market.

The coalition sent their proposal in August: a $1 lease for the basement and first floor of the building for 75 years — the same rent that MICA paid to EBDI for almost 12 years.

“The city sells things for a dollar all the time,” Gross said. “There was a public good that was being offered by the people that were in the space, the residents who were doing these projects.”

It also asked that EBDI pay for a community outreach and activities coordinator for the building.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The college’s leasing agreement, where it paid $1 per year and covered all renovations costs, was a “one-of-a-kind” arrangement, EBDI’s President and Chief Executive Officer Cheryl Washington wrote in an email. She said the organization needs to focus on finishing its redevelopment.

EBDI removed hundreds of people from the Middle East neighborhood, promising to redevelop and revitalize it and eventually bring the families back. The city’s department of planning says the project has stalled over the past few years, but EBDI says they plan to finish by 2031.

Leasing the building to another institution wasn’t an option, Washington said. Operational costs for the building were $224,885 in 2019, according to MICA, and the building’s current value is $781,300, according to Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation records. It had a mortgage of $582,645 in June of 2021.

“EBDI remains supportive and willing to explore all options to support the community coalition,” Washington wrote in the email. “To date we have not gotten any interest from other entities wanting to lease the building and take on the same responsibilities that MICA did.”

The COVID-19 pandemic took a financial toll on EBDI, putting a stress on funders, according to a 2021 financial report. The Annie E. Casey Foundation stopped “providing support” for EBDI after 2021, which led EBDI to reduce its operations budget by about $800,000.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

EBDI has also worked on disposing “undeveloped parcels of land” to address a “potential funding gap” in fiscal year 2022 and beyond, according to the financial report.

The board rejected the community group’s proposal, offering instead a one-time grant of $200,000 that would be paid over three years to the community. The grant, which would come from the sale of the building, is expected to cover the lease for an office, classroom and community space. But the community says that based on MICA’s operational costs, the grant would not be enough.

The coalition’s counterproposal continued to push for the $1 lease, with a length agreement reduced to 50 years.

Instead, East Baltimore Development Inc. will use the property’s sale to help community initiatives “utilize the property sale proceeds to further uplift community initiatives, and refocus our attention on the final stages of the master plan.” It will include costs of operation, such as “insurance, personal, office lease, water bills, taxes, engineers, real estate and finance consultants,” and the corporation’s initiatives for “economic inclusion, opportunity to return, food access, [and] digital equity.”

But the neighborhood coalition wants access. And given the history of EBDI in the neighborhood, they say they deserve it. Community members say EBDI’s redevelopment relocated hundreds of people — promising to bring them back — but coalition members say the organization hasn’t improved the neighborhood for residents who lived there before the project began, many of whom are Black.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Sherrod Wood, a McElderry Park resident and another member of the coalition, says she doesn’t see a genuine willingness to negotiate with the community on EBDI’s part. The coalition is made up of grassroots organizations that don’t have the funds or resources to operate in a physical location. The college had let them use the basement and first floor for free, Wood said, which made a huge difference.

So for Wood, the coalition at least needs the opportunity to meet up with the entity that ultimately buys the building from EBDI. She has hope that the coalition would be allowed to stay, should the buyer be a community-oriented organization like the college turned out to be.

The building dates back to the turn of the 20th century. It was the heart of Baltimore’s Bohemian Catholic community — a parochial school for Czech families and where a neighboring church hosted dances and picnics. By December of 1988, the Archdiocese of Baltimore transferred ownership of the building to St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, an organization that worked with low-income families seeking housing.

In December of 2008, EBDI created a foundation to revitalize “the distressed community of East Baltimore” as part of the company’s “charitable and educational purposes.” That foundation purchased the building in April of 2009, using a loan of more than $1.2 million. EBDI leadership had suggested to MICA that the college use the building as “a permanent base for its programs,” adding that the program brought a “strong, vibrant use” to the building.

Maryland Institute College of Art announced their community arts program in July of 2010, calling it MICA PLACE, an acronym for “Programs Linking Art, Culture and Education,” according to an article from The Baltimore Sun. The college started leasing the building in November of that year and was set to renew every six years.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The building was to contain an art gallery, computer lab, studios, seminar space, community meeting rooms and apartments for at least 26 graduate students. Under the lease with EBDI, MICA also had to provide “original artwork displays” and sponsor arts events in the community. MICA also had to pay “all costs, expenses and obligations of every kind and nature whatsoever” related to the building, including at least a $1.2 million renovation, according to The Baltimore Sun, and insurance.

And for many years, the community arts program did bring some vibrancy to the neighborhood. It was the birthplace of Baltimore United Viewfinders, a youth arts program where MICA students and volunteers taught photography to kids and teens after school.

But as of 2019, the college was uncertain about its future at North Collington. They decided the building would no longer house graduate students, who were feeling disconnected from the rest of the campus community. There were also challenges with maintaining the operational costs for the building, the college’s interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Tiffany Holmes said. The pandemic made it worse.

In a bittersweet meeting in January, the college told community members it would not be extending the lease, which was set to end in October. Community members say they hadn’t been inside the building but had programming outside on the property even during the pandemic.

“A lot of community members talked about memories that they had of doing things with students in the building and expressed a sense of loss,” Holmes said.

The college officially notified East Baltimore Development Inc. in April. By June, EBDI’s board had approved the sale of the building.

If the building is sold and the community can’t have access to it, the coalition would need funds to support itself permanently in another space, Middle East resident Ed Kangethe said.

“The building itself has a history of community service,” he said. “And as community members, we have come together to continue that service.”

A $200,000 grant over three years won’t cut it, the neighborhood coalition said — community members have used the space for far longer than that. For now, EBDI will provide updates on the broker search and other developments to the community by Dec. 16.

“I’m befuddled as to why a lease can’t be executed before so that we can be assured that we have excellent access to the space under conditions that are beneficial to the community,” Gross said. “Particularly the historic community of Middle East.”

clara.longo@thebaltimorebanner.com