Seawall Development :: A Model For Social Enterprise

Seawall Development, the real estate company founded and headed by Thibault and Donald Manekin, has made a name for itself with its history of ethical revitalization of transitioning neighborhoods. The company’s success at the Miller’s Court building in Remington, was matched by its achievements at Union Mill in Hampden, and Seawall is taking aim in Remington again with the Tire Shop project.

Seawall’s history in Remington began with the purchase of the vacant tin can manufactory that would become Miller’s Court, with a perceived need: “The city is incredibly blessed with universities and colleges and programs like Teach for America. Teach for America is a two year window of opportunity for [teachers] to get connected to the city, and our small part in this is literally to create the first housing for them, to make this as easy a process as possible so that they get situated, get to know Baltimore over time, and hopefully buy houses and pay taxes,” explained Donald Manekin during a recent interview.

Millers Court, before construction
Miller’s Court, before construction
Millers Court, after restoration
Miller’s Court, after renovations

Sitting on the board for Teach for America, Manekin got a good idea of what incoming teachers wanted. This came as a result of TFA board meetings where members often shared the idea of how a well situated building where teachers could live, that took the mystery out of where to live, needed to provid important amenities and a supportive environment. Many times, young teachers would come to Baltimore and face difficulties finding safe, affordable, teacher-friendly housing. Seawall’s idea was, essentially, to take the difficulty out of the process and make Baltimore as friendly and welcoming a city as possible, in hopes of retaining the teaching talent. At the same time, they hoped to give back to the neighborhoods by creating opportunities for native Baltimoreans as well as incoming young talent. “We’ve got communities that can really benefit from this kind of development going on and the ripple effect around it, they can feel engaged with the process of doing it,” Manekin said.

The Miller’s Court and Union Mill developments offer great apartments, with rent heavily discounted for teachers. Additionally, they’ve created informal social innovation incubators by offering office spaces to non-profits and social enterprises. They also offer spaces and features that encourage the existing neighborhood to become engaged as well: Charmington’s Café in the Miller’s Court building, and Artifact Coffee in Union Mill, have become neighborhood hot-spots that increase community engagement. The developers often offer public spaces that benefit existing residents as well as new ones: “The ambiance in this neighborhood has changed from [people] fearful of walking their dogs around the block, to this real sense of community. It’s exceeded any of our expectations,” remarked Manekin.

Union Mill, before renovations
Union Mill, before renovations
Union Mill, after renovations
Union Mill, after renovations

Seawall had the opportunity to work on houses, in addition to apartment buildings, while maintaining the same ethics of social engagement and neighborhood improvement. Teachers who had benefited from Seawall’s apartment offerings contacted the company and asked if they knew of any houses in the Remington area for sale, as they were planning to make Baltimore their home. “Two years ago we got called by about six teachers in the building here, who said, ‘We really love what you’re doing. We love being in the classroom. We love Baltimore and Remington. Do you guys know of any [houses] for sale?’” Manekin explained. “Teachers really wanted to make Baltimore their home.” Seawall found and purchased about thirty houses, most of which were vacant and boarded up, and began the process of renovating them – to their intended occupants’ specifications.

“I guess we had four or five planning sessions with the architect and the teachers who had shown interest, figuring that if we were going to build houses for them, they had better have input into what actually is going to occur. So it was really terribly helpful for us to have that kind of input from the ultimate purchasers,” Manekin said. After the houses had been renovated into teacher-friendly locations, Seawall held an open house, without an inkling of the kind of interest they would encounter. “Thibault and Jon [Constable] and Evan [Morville] sent out an email to all the people we’d worked with who’d been residents in our project, and sent out this open house notice if anybody was interested. We had no idea how many people would show up, and three hundred people showed up on a Sunday afternoon.” By the end of the afternoon, all of the houses had been spoken for. Manekin estimates that about sixty percent of them went to teachers, and the rest went to people interested in living in Remington.

Miller’s Court courtyard
Miller's Court
Miller’s Court

Seawall’s latest project continues their practice of socially responsible development, though the means are a little bit different. The Tire Shop, named after its former purpose, the building sits across from the Miller’s Court apartments in Remington. It will house a butcher’s shop restaurant by Spike and Amy Gjerde, the team behind Woodberry Kitchen, the new home of Single Carrot Theatre, which opened this past weekend, and Young Audiences, a nonprofit that works to provide arts education to children in Baltimore. The end result will be an additional cultural anchor in Remington. Donald Manekin spoke with excitement about the project, saying, “The city’s been engaged, the community’s been engaged. I think the project’s really become a home for the community. I don’t live in the neighborhood, but everybody who does felt like they had a voice in what’s going on.”

While explaining the impetus for socially responsible business ethics, Manekin explained, “My father ran a business based on relationships and not transactions, and I think that filtered down between me, Thibault, and those who are part of Seawall.” That ethos is evident in Seawall’s efforts to create profitable developments with a sense of responsibility to the communities they are built in. Seawall strives to work with current neighborhoods and seeks to create improvement while still respecting the existing character. In the main, they seek to contribute to a stronger Baltimore, and to a stronger Remington and Hampden in particular. As Donald put it, “We have a responsibility to how we make projects like this serve the population that’s in the building and the community as a whole.”