Richard Best has already given this tour at least four times today.
He grabs a coffee from the Starbucks in the Fitzgerald building on Mount Royal near Charles and walks behind an adjacent parking lot. Down beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, where the feral cats and dirt piles are, Best wants to build what he’s calling the world’s largest urban art park: Section1.
Best is still waiting on the official long-term lease from the Maryland Transportation Authority and working on a formal right-of-entry from Amtrak, which operates a nearby rail line. But he’s already building out a business development plan and readying a board of directors. He’s convincing nearby MICA and the University of Baltimore that not only should they allow their students to hang out under a bridge, they should encourage it.
But those are not the biggest challenges Best is trying to take on with Section1.
His biggest challenge is taking a space frequented by proudly underground artists performing the rebellious act of graffiti (a term Best doesn’t like) and turning it into one of the world’s best known and most visited art spaces.
“It’s the kind of thing only an entrepreneur would say,” said Best, 31, driving in his Jeep after giving Technical.ly Baltimore a tour.
Best is uniquely suited for this strange role as founder of Section1, a soon-to-be nonprofit tasked with building multiple unique art spaces around the city. This highway project is just a starting point.
Raised in suburban Atlanta, Best served four years in military intelligence (he was deployed in Afghanistan working with drones) before landing a cybersecurity job in Maryland at AAI in 2010. That’s how he found, two years later, the unique dual-degree program that gives graduates an MBA from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and an MA from MICA.
Best has always been artistically inclined, finding time for creative pursuits while in the service. But it was his move to Baltimore that let him develop as a muralist — he was behind a unique, crowdfunded 3D project on Charles Street.
He wants Section1, which he says is a play on Section 8 housing, to be sustainable on revenue. The I-83 location, with its 60,000 square feet of paint-ready cement, is also building out live performance capabilities. There are plans for a 5,000-seat amphitheater that can be rented out. There could be an art supplies store with membership perks. The idea is to complement the foundational and corporate support Best says will come.
The site, which is mostly under the expressway but also includes a trail to an abandoned railyard, will also host a skate park, which should draw in another community altogether.
Best is taking notes from the tech community, both in its investment-savvy, collaborative nature and its big thinking.
Many in those circles are supporters of Best’s project. MissionTix CEO Greg Cangialosi, whom Best lists as an adviser, called Section1 “amazing.” Deb Tillett of the Emerging Technology Centers said the project “is part of this ‘new Baltimore’ that everyone should be excited about.”
If the first obstacles to a project as unorthodox as this are bureaucratic, Best has a head start there.
Former city parks and rec director Chris Delaporte introduced Best to Sam Polakoff, the influential Cormony Development property developer, who is now Section1 board president, as Baltimore Fishbowl first reported. There are more than a dozen people involved, some less formally than others, as seen in the project proposal.
“Everyone has been helpful. There haven’t been those road blocks that you’d expect,” said Best. “Baltimore is a great city to get creative things done.”
It helps that there’s also precedent for this.
Best points to examples like the Wynwood Arts District in Miami and 5 Pointz in Queens. The industrial re-use emulates Manhattan’s High Line and Franklin’s Paine Skate Park in Philadelphia.
For Baltimore, this likely couldn’t happen in a better location. The Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which straddles the tech community, continues to grow its reputation in the region and beyond. Station North isn’t just MICA and Artscape anymore. The rise of urbanism around Penn Station, too, makes this a promising reason for out-of-towners to visit.
“You have to be excited by something like this joining the Baltimore arts community,” said Jeannie Howe, the director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
For now, Best is beginning fundraising efforts for the official site plan and build-out. He’s awaiting nonprofit status and the official word on the organization’s ability to lease the space, which he doesn’t expect to be a problem. Though the space is already seeing small-group tours, Best said a fuller build-out might come by fall 2015.
Which brings us back to Best’s biggest challenge: building a model that retains, rather than alienates, the space’s existing artistic community. Building a structure around a space that grew up without one.
The goal, Best says, will be to curate and develop the best work, while dismissing “the kind of people who come here and spray paint dicks over other people’s work,” he said.
“You’ll always have haters,” Best said. “But this is an opportunity for something bigger for Baltimore.”