November 13, 2013

The Developer as Neighbor: 5 Questions with Seawall’s Thibault Manekin

By Brian Wolak

Seawall Development Co. has become synonymous with the turnaround of Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood, starting with Miller’s Court.

Founded in 2007, Seawall has been racking up accolades of its own. Earlier this year, the Baltimore Business Journal named co-founder Thibault Manekin one if its “People to Watch.”The developer has been recognized at the White House as one of President Obama’s Champions of Change. And recently, another one of its projects, Oxford Mills, was profiled by the New York Times.The Baltimore-based developer oversaw its resurrection in 2008 from a former tin can manufacturer into a mixed-use community of affordable apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofits. Then they set out to redevelop three square blocks nearby. Since then, Remington has gained increasing notoriety, most recently with the Baltimore City Paper dubbing it Best Up and Coming Neighborhod.

Enterprise has partnered with Seawall on Miller’s Court, Remington and Oxford Mills and asked Thibault to share some of his insights

1. You’ve described Seawall as “social entrepreneurs who happen to be in real estate.” How do you define a social entrepreneur, and how does Seawall fit that definition?

A social entrepreneur is someone whose main focus is on making society better and who can creatively think of out-of-the-box ways to go about doing that. For us, that’s through real estate. We don’t want to be thought of as developers. We want to be thought of as a company that uses the built environment to help make cities better places to live, work and play -- both by the projects we develop and most importantly by the people we put in them. Our goal is to roll out the red carpet for those who are doing the most important work in our country so that they can focus all of the energy and attention on what they do best.  

 2. How would you sum up Seawall’s approach to development?

Inclusive. We are very aware of how much we don’t know and how much others do know, which is why it’s important to surround ourselves with really smart people. For us, we realize that we are the orchestra conductors, but at the end of the day these aren’t just our projects. They belong to the people who live and work in them, to the neighborhoods who accept them, to the lenders who finance them, to the architects who design them, to the contractors that build them, etc. Our goal is that everyone involved has the same sense of pride and ownership in the finished product.  

3. Baltimore’s Remington community has been outspoken in its support of Seawall. Would you speak to the work you’re doing in Remington and your partnership with the residents?

When we first came into Remington in 2008 we made a real conscious decision to be neighbors and not guests. We were clear with the community that these were their buildings and that we just wanted to play some small role in breathing new life back into them. What has happened since our first Miller’s Court project in Remington that we did with Enterprise has been absolutely contagious. With the help of the neighborhoods, we realized that Remington had so much potential. There were dozens of forgotten old industrial buildings that were prime for redevelopment and abandoned houses that needed to be reinvented. The residents in Remington have been heroic and are the reason that so much positive activity is taking place there.

4. Is there one overriding lesson, insight or takeaway that you’ve gleaned from your development projects or the communities you’ve worked with?

Listening is the key. That’s the most important thing we have learned since we started here at Seawall.

5.  We’d be remiss not to ask you about working with Enterprise. What kind of partner is Enterprise?

I was joking with Elaine DiPietro from Enterprise (VP, Structured Finance) the other day. In 2010 we did a project without Enterprise and it was the biggest mistake we have ever made. Enterprise has been the best partner imaginable. They are creative, flexible and brilliant when it comes to these complicated projects. Our last few deals have had Enterprise in every phase of the project, from predevelopment funds to New Markets Tax Credits allocation to outcomes measurements to sustainability to asset management. I tell everyone who asks that without Enterprise as a partner, none of this would be possible. 

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