By now, anyone who lives in a reasonably healthy city has seen evidence of a developer who improves an old piece of real estate (and often the existing building itself) by building upward. If a property is small and the neighbors hem it in, the natural way to grow is up. And we’re setting a very, very low bar for what constitutes “up”—literally, the worm’s-eye-view. That is, if a property had nothing more than surface parking lot, the construction of a one-story building in its place is, in almost all respects, an investment and an improvement. And, for those properties that might have once hosted a drive-thru burger joint but now host a four-story office building, the indisputable result is that the assessed value of the property has risen; in almost all circumstances, four stories of usable space offers a greater capitalization opportunity than a one-story building.
As is nearly always the case, I carefully inserted the obligatory weasel words into that previous paragraph: in almost all circumstances. (The “nearly always” adverbs covered my tracks even further in the preceding sentence.) After all, with enough searching, one can always find exceptions to the rule. On rare occasions, we encounter examples of where the redevelopment of a property—even in an area where land values are steadily increasing—results in what amounts to a build-down, where a considerable investment creates a net loss in total square footage. But why would this happen?
The satellite city of Frederick, Maryland is hardly a place where one would expect land values to decline. All evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite: the city is booming. Located 45 miles northwest of the core of Washington DC, Fredericks’s trajectory echoes that of Shepherdstown, West Virginia (featured just last week), only writ large. As recently as the 1980s, it was a tired old colonial town whose best days seemed to be behind it. Now, as population, housing and jobs from the nation’s capital push ever further outward, Frederick is perfectly poised to capitalize on affluent workers seeking more reasonable housing prices. It is both far enough and close enough. The city has grown 150% in the last 30 years, rising to the second largest city in Maryland, behind Baltimore. Its central core of well-preserved early 19th century brick rowhomes and commercial buildings is thriving, with tremendous walkability between riverfront parks, churches, government buildings, and numerous restaurant and retail opportunities. The average person who visits Frederick will most likely form an impression of a well-maintained, generally prosperous small city.
Formerly a freestanding town with miles of countryside between it and Washington DC, Frederick today is an increasingly lucrative bedroom community. It’s quite a drive to DC’s Federal Triangle and Penn Quarter—probably close to 90 minutes during rush hour traffic—but numerous other prestigious jobs in suburban Montgomery County, MD are up to an hour’s drive closer. And Frederick offers a MARC commuter rail line to DC for those seeking to avoid the congestion. The long-term forecast for Frederick is undoubtedly positive. So what’s going on with this building just a few blocks from the train station?Take a closer look at the stone building to the left in this photo. Predating the Revolutionary War, it refers to itself as ” Sky Stage ”. Judging from the name, the open-air character is apparently a critical selling point. But its defining characteristic is a relatively recent intervention: a decade ago, based on this Google Street View, it was a two-story, underutilized old warehouse building. So why did the owners/developers lop off a floor?
A quick sifting through Frederick landmarks reveals Sky Stage’s conception came out of adversity. Shortly after that vintage Google Street View photo, the old building caught on fire, seemingly damaged beyond repair. It sat in a mothballed state for a year or two, then a regional artist, Heather Theresa Clark, partnered with local and national nonprofit and civic groups, as well as MIT’s Digital Structures research group to repurpose what survived of the building. Presuming that the stone façade that dominated the lower floor offered greater aesthetic interest, the team salvaged what they could, demolished the roof and upper floor, then reconfigured the surviving shell into a temporary green installation with rainwater harvesting. While this article indicates that the living art installation intended to close its in July 2017, it appears to be still going strong. The shell at Sky Stage continues to accommodate up to 140 people for a variety of theatrical events, naturally peaking during the warm-weather months.
I’ll concede that I have been unable to verify the use of the building prior to the fire. Perhaps the owners were taking full advantage of its historic interest across both of its two floors. But the devastating blaze clearly put an end to that venture, and the subsequent restoration team decided that, rather than reconstructing the masonry on the second floor (which appeared to be a nearly total loss), they’d eliminate the roof altogether and repurpose the lower level to withstand various weather patterns. As a result, an open-air theater (essentially no more than half of a single floor) with arts programming is a higher and better use than a restored old commercial/industrial building. The very absence of the roof gives Sky Stage greater visual intrigue, and the introduction of an arts facility in Frederick’s historically industrial quarters creates an anomalous use that enlivens the area on weekends and evenings, when the light industrial activity in the surrounding buildings is no longer operative. Perhaps most tellingly, Sky Stage offers a microcosmic example of the shift from a prevailing culture and economic of manual labor to one of leisure and entertainment—a transition befitting Frederick’s own morph from a mining outpost serving Appalachia to the west, to a bedroom community that is oriented toward the wealthy DC/Baltimore suburbs to the east. The eras collide at Sky Stage, a perfect little example of how two different time periods harness creativity to bear economic fruit.