For years, the vacant Columbus School on a busy corner of East North Avenue appeared to be nothing more than a giant planter. Leafy tree branches stuck out over the top of the historic red-brick walls, making it seem like the school's only future inhabitants would be squirrels and birds.
But Kevin Bell and Michael Barland saw more. They are investing about $14 million into the run-down 120-year-old building, also known as Public School 99, to make it livable for dozens of families.
"We're going to be proud of this," Bell said after he emerged from the neo-Romanesque building on a recent weekday, hard hat in hand.
Bell is senior vice president of development for the Maryland operations of the Woda Group LLC, a for-profit affordable housing company. Together with Barland's organization, the nonprofit Housing Services Alliance Inc., Woda is making strides toward improving the North Avenue corridor while offering the city's low-income residents more housing options. From a block near Coppin State University on the city's west side to the neighborhood south of Clifton Park on the east side, the partnership aims to have a lasting effect on one of Baltimore's busiest streets.
Founded in 1990, Woda owns and manages more than 6,000 residential units in 11 Midwestern, Northeastern and Southern states. About five years ago, the company decided to move into its first urban market — Baltimore. It hired Bell, who had completed several affordable housing projects in the region, to manage its operations here.
When Bell joined Woda in 2008, he already had been allocated federal low-income housing tax credits to support the financing of the Penn Square Apartments, a community of about 90 apartments for people with incomes at or below 60 percent of Baltimore's median income, just off West North Avenue on Pennsylvania Avenue.
He met Barland during the development of Penn Square, which was fully leased when it opened in 2011, Bell said.
At Bell's urging, Barland — a former development executive for New Shiloh Community Development Corp., a subsidiary of West Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church — joined Housing Services Alliance, an Ohio-based organization that, like Woda, had focused on the creation of affordable housing outside urban centers.
"He and I had a common desire to make something better for the city," Barland said.
When Bell asked him to suggest sites for future affordable housing projects, Barland didn't hesitate.
"It wasn't even a heartbeat of a thought, I went: North Avenue — the 3000 block," Barland recalled. For decades, since his time as a development official for Coppin State, Barland had wanted this drug-infested stretch to be redeveloped.
With Woda, the opportunity finally arrived. Woda secured another round of federal tax credits for the construction of North Avenue Gateway, a $14 million, 64-unit structure to replace 20 empty lots and seven vacant rowhouses.
When completed later this year, the North Avenue Gateway will include a clinic operated by Coppin State's nursing school. (Barland is chairman of the school's board of directors.)
The pair's long-term plan is to redevelop the north side of the block as well, Bell said.
Formal financial partnerships between Woda and Housing Services have grown out of the relationship that Barland and Bell developed during the North Avenue Gateway project. They are collaborating on the Columbus School redevelopment, a site across town from the Gateway.
"It will help to stretch the revitalization of North Avenue" out from the center of the city, where the Station North Arts District is burgeoning, said City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the South Clifton Park neighborhood, home to the school that closed in the 1970s. "The Columbus School is important because it helps to put in place another marker for revitalization to stem from."
The Columbus School Apartments, financed with federal tax credits for the preservation of historic buildings and low-income housing, will offer 50 affordable units. The 68,000-square-foot building, on the National Register of Historic Places, is expected to open later this year, Bell said.
Housing Services and Woda also expect to start construction in late fall on a second phase of the Penn Square Apartments, to be called the Fulton-Gethsemane Family Apartments, named in honor of two Baptist churches in the community, Bell said.
That project, on the same stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue off West North Avenue, will offer about 60 units, he said.
"It's been a blessing to be in that space," said Glenice Shabazz, owner of Smart Steps Children's Centers, which has five locations in Baltimore, including one in Penn Square's current building. The expansion will benefit many working families, she said.
In addition to those projects, Woda and Housing Services have an informal partnership with the Center for Urban Families, which also finds workers for Woda's construction contractors and does the initial income screenings for the company's properties.
Together, the three organizations are going to place low-income buyers in six residences being renovated adjacent to the Penn Square Apartments. They're planning to offer the rowhomes for about $100,000, said Joseph T. Jones Jr., the center's founder, president and CEO.
"I'd say it's an excellent partnership," Jones said.