In the epicenter of unrest

Carl Verstandig, president and CEO of America’s Realty, plans to redevelop a vacant warehouse in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Penn North. Photo by Marc Shapiro
Carl Verstandig, president and CEO of America’s Realty, plans to redevelop a vacant warehouse in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Penn North.
Photo by Marc Shapiro

After the protests that turned violent with clashes between residents and police, looting and fires in the Penn North area as well as other parts of the city, Pikesville developer Carl Verstandig got a phone call from Burt Greenwood.

The third-generation owner of Greenwood Towing in Penn North wanted to see if Verstandig would be interested redeveloping a vacant warehouse.

“We have been in this area since 1970 and don’t expect to move anytime soon,” Greenwood said. “We are very committed to the community, and we are committed to ensuring that the people who live and breathe here have the same basic infrastructure that people do in the county.”

The impoverished neighborhood was the epicenter of unrest after the police custody death of Freddie Gray. Things exploded April 27, with looting and fires that included the burning of the local CVS.

To Verstandig, president and CEO of America’s Realty, the neighborhood represents opportunity.

With more than 30 years of experience buying distressed and vacant commercial properties around the country and turning them around, Verstandig wasted no time reaching out to potential tenants to fill the 100,000-square-foot warehouse on Greenwood’s property.

Several clients have already expressed interest in the property: Roses department store, an international grocer, McDonald’s, a local café, a national health clinic, a laundromat and a men’s clothing store, Verstandig said. He estimated his company will put about $4.5 million to $7.5 million of initial investment into the property but is hoping for some incentives from the state and city.

To entice tenants, Verstandig is offering the first year rent-free, then five years of discounted rent at $5 per square foot, whereas most of his city properties rent for $10 a square foot. He’s also offering tenants a three-year kick-out, so they can leave if they’re not making money at the end of the period.

The nearest shopping center with similar services — Mondawmin Mall, which was also looted that Monday afternoon — is more than a mile away.

“A lot of people there don’t have transportation, so they’re sort of lost without those services,” Verstandig, a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, said of the neighborhood.

The property was home to two different health facilities, first a University of Maryland Clinic that opened about 15 years ago, then a Baltimore City health clinic, which closed about two years ago when its grant money ran out, Greenwood said.

Outside of the real estate opportunity, Verstandig has a connection to the area, having grown up about three miles from Greenwood’s property in East Baltimore, above the grocery store his parents owned. During the 1968 riots, his family’s business stayed open and gave food out to the neighborhood.

When rioters came to destroy the business, local residents intervened and stopped them, Verstandig said.

“So I’ve got a certain allegiance,” he explained. “I also like that a day after the rioting or looting that the neighborhood on Pennsylvania and North got out and started cleaning up and chipping in.”

Greenwood, whose family’s business opened on East North Avenue in 1925, remembers feeling a similar sentiment as an 8-year-old during the 1968 riots to what he felt during the recent unrest.

“When I started to see what was going on in front of me, it frightened me, but it didn’t frighten me in a way that I was scared of where I was,” Greenwood recalled, adding that he thought, “Wow, this is big. This means people aren’t happy with what is happening here.”

Looking at the recent events, Greenwood remarked, “It happened, so something had to make this happen, make it erupt.

“It’s not a total loss if people turn their head and say, ‘Hey, why did that happen?’”

Verstandig and Greenwood might not be the only ones with hope for Baltimore’s future, according to Susan Yum, a spokesperson for the city’s economic development nonprofit Baltimore Development Corporation.

“Not a single project that we know of that has been in the pipeline has dropped out,” she said. “In fact, some have said that they want to double down and move even faster.”

Verstandig is also looking at about 10 vacant storefronts on Pennsylvania Avenue toward Fulton Avenue, he said. He’s trying to track down the owners so he can redevelop the properties.

“They need some positive energy,” Verstandig said of the neighborhood. “I think Baltimore’s going to rebound and, hopefully, stronger than ever. … Hopefully out of this horrific situation something positive will come.”

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