Best of Maryland: CASA de Maryland Recognized with Stewardship Award for Historic Belnord Theatre Project

09/14/2020
By Preservation Maryland

CASA de Maryland is a Latino and immigration advocacy and assistance organization with satellite offices in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Here in Maryland, the non-profit organization had been serving the community for several years from East Fayette Street, a few blocks from the Belnord Theatre building. After a purchase in 2017, CASA created bold plans for the historic theatre. Selective demolition removed a non-historic ceiling revealing beautiful architectural details and a space large enough to create a series of modern pods for different uses – all while respecting those design elements and achieving ADA compliance and LEED Gold Certification. Even during Covid-19, CASA has been able to utilize the extra space of the Belnord Theatre renovation to host large-scale and socially-distanced grocery pick-ups. CASA is eager to return to full-strength – supporting the community – and the restored Belnord will take center stage.

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What can happen to a neighborhood in 100 years? In 1921, the historic Belnord Theatre opened in what is now the National Register East Monument Historic District. The large, minimal, classical-style building was a landmark and status symbol for the then-thriving community, and for decades the neighborhood was known as Belnord Square. Of cultural significance throughout its 45 years of operation in a mixed-race community is the theatre never segregated. In the late 20th-century blue-collar job loss contributed to the closing of the movie theatre and the physical and spiritual decline of the neighborhood.

In the early 21st century, community groups and investors rallied to reinvigorate the neighborhood, now known as Library Square due to the location of the Patterson Park Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Unfortunately, the great recession stalled efforts in 2009. In 2013, plans were again drawn to revitalize the area, and over the next seven years, numerous community, non-profit, government, and for-profit organizations worked together to preserve its neighborhood history and empower the community’s future.

The massive, worn-out Belnord Theatre, previously converted to a grocery, punk music venue, and most recently a furniture store, weighed heavily on the visual progress of the square. Its size and condition made its purchase unlikely. CASA de Maryland (CASA), a non-profit devoted to improving the quality of life in working-class and immigrant communities, had been serving the community from a nearby site and had outgrown its space. With community members expressing the need for on-site vocational training programs, expanded services, and youth programs, the Theatre held promise.

In 2017, CASA purchased the 16,000 square-feet Belnord Theatre with plans to transform it into a multi-purpose regional center offering training, workforce development, education, services, and advocacy for the immigrant community of the entire Baltimore region. Perfectly located along bus and train lines as well as easily bikeable and walkable streets, the location made access easy. The proximity of the restored library, revitalized green space, and the William Penn Elementary School made the prospects for CASA’s youth programs look even more promising. The project would have considerable community impact in terms of the physical redevelopment, employment, and services for the residents of not just Library Square, but the surrounding neighborhoods.

CASA’s plans included ADA compliance, preservation of the historic fabric of the building, and obtaining U.S.G.B.C. LEED “Gold” Certification. It was important to preserve the history of the building, one of rare social acceptance, as well as ensure that it operates in a socially responsible way. Planned sustainability positioned CASA to focus future resources on services and programs rather than utility costs and upkeep. “Any revitalization effort requires catalysts, if we truly want to see community investment, this is one of those”, says Bob Brehm, Project Manager, Organizational Assistance LLC. “I think without a doubt it is the single largest non-government project to bring in new capital and significantly improve this community. The fact that it is being controlled and run by and for the benefit of the community is unique.”

The project, which has nearly tripled CASA’s service capacity to 11,000 clients annually, attracted approximately $14M in funding from major private and government funders led by The Weinberg Foundation, the City of Baltimore, and the State of Maryland. The project also received New Market Tax Credits, Federal Historic Tax Credits, and State Historic Tax Credits. Tax credit financing partners include PNC Bank, Raza Development Fund, The Reinvestment Fund, and Twain Financial Partners.

 

The construction included removing a modern ceiling to reveal a cavernous space full of beautiful historic design elements that were incorporated into a thoroughly modernized and innovative space. Historical architect, Encore Sustainable Architects, worked with lead JRS Architects, Albrecht Engineering, Burdette, Koehler, Murphy & Associates, Hamel Commercial, Hayles and Howe, and others to make the space usable in approximately 18 months – an incredible undertaking. Encore’s Ward Bucher, AIA, well experienced in both sustainable use and in the restoration of historic theatres, introduced his “pod” concept of creating self-contained rooms within the main space to preserve users’ perception of the original volume. This created usable office, classroom, training, and flex space framed with history.

“When you are part of a project like this, you see one part, from your perspective, at the beginning. But you are financing a dream – a collective one,” said Dana Johnson, Managing Director of the Reinvestment Fund, “I remember walking through the dust and debris early on in the project, and now it is just beautiful. Functional. Welcoming. The team was visionary in seeing the potential of the Belnord Theatre and executing its transformation. This is a group that will pay huge dividends in the community they serve.”

In March 2020, COVID-19 shut down our country, but the new CASA de Maryland Regional Center opened its historic doors to serve thousands in the community. The Southeast Development Corporation has called the completion of the Center the “capstone to the Library Square revitalization efforts.” The building has already jumped into action, serving as a much-needed space in the perfect location to coordinate, store, and organize food distribution to those in need due to COVID-19’s effect on the economy. The Center will soon offer job placement, legal, citizenship, and financial literacy services, ESOL classes, youth after- school and leadership development programming, and multi-racial organizing.

The Belnord Theatre was built 100 years ago with the purpose of opening its doors to people of all kinds. They came there to watch films, entertain dreams, and escape reality. Today, the historic building again opens its doors to all, but this time, to fulfill dreams and make them a reality. It will again serve as a symbol, the neighborhood capstone, of a thriving community.

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