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Actor Malik Yoba came to Baltimore last week to check on what he called a role of a lifetime.
Standing at a once forgotten, rough-and-tumble corner in West Baltimore, the star of “New York Undercover,” “Empire,” “Designated Survivor” and several films looked up to inspect a pair of apartment buildings at the $800 million Center/West development. As an investor in the project with developers Daniel Bythewood Jr. and Ian Arias, Yoba is branching out his successful career from the stage to the street.
“For me, this is mission work,” he said of the 262 units that will welcome tenants in early fall.
A portion of the luxury apartments on all floors in the Center/West multi-family project will be affordable for low-income city residents. That was the main attraction to Yoba to be a part of the development that aims to ultimately create an upscale, new urban cache on 32 acres in Poppleton.
“It isn’t a local Baltimore story, it’s an American story — this is what ‘making America great again’ is all about. This is people who don’t live in a particular community who are coming here saying we want to make this amazing for everybody,” he said.
Yoba’s undisclosed equity in the project will help complete the first phase of the project that has been 14 years in the making.
The Brooklyn-based actor is one of several partners in the deal by New York-based LaCite Development, including the state and city who backed a $58.9 million tax increment financing package in 2015. Last week, Goldman Sachs joined in, investing in Center/West through the purchase of $5 million in tax credits following a recent state revenue bond sale.
All of the factors have helped the project materialize. Located west of Martin Luther King Boulevard at Fayette and Schroeder streets, Center/West is planned to have 1,600 apartments and 3.2 million square feet of residential and commercial space in about a decade.
The second phase, to begin in the coming six months, will hold a “big box retailer and movie theater,” Bythewood said. A Starbucks could also soon open near Schroeder and Amity streets adjacent to the decrepit Poe Homes public housing project — an addition that five years ago was unrealistic in a neighborhood with some of the city’s highest unemployment rates.
It is that underdog status that has pumped Yoba up.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work as an actor and tell stories that transform,” Yoba, 50, said during a tour and interview last week that included selfies with construction workers and Poppleton residents.
“I’m proud to be part of projects that literally change lives. Here, you can’t tell where affordable housing is in the building. Everyone has the same Class A finishes and everyone can feel proud. When you go up into these units, you emotionally feel like someone cared about me. Look at the space, the views, the amenities, the fixtures.”
Yoba asked local residents and construction workers if they planned to move into Center/West. When they told him they didn’t think they could afford a unit in the development, Yoba told them, “yes you can. This is for you, too.”
His involvement on Baltimore’s development landscape joins other actors including Wendell Pierce, of HBO’s “The Wire” who invested in the newly opened 103-unit, $22 million Nelson Kohl apartments in Station North with developer Ernst Valery.
Yoba said he has aspired to be a developer since his days as a youth fascinated with construction sites in the Bronx. He met Bythewood 13 years ago through Bythewood’s cousin, a writer for “New York Undercover,” and said that he immediately knew he wanted to invest in the Baltimore project because he believed in the grit of the city.
“Baltimore and Detroit — they are solid cities,” he said. “This gives people hope. It’s self-esteem building. We live in a world where mental health is real. Emotional health is real, and people feel like no one cares.”
Of his tour last week of the Center/West buildings that will hold studio, one, two and three-bedroom units with luxury finishes, Yoba said the reality of it all has finally started to sink in.
“I walked into the space today and had a physiological reaction,” he said. “I want to live here. It’s better than my place in New York.”
In the coming years, Center/West may get the film treatment, too, as Yoba said he is considering making a documentary on the transformation of the community.
“It’s about a physical entity driven by a philosophy about inclusion,” he said. “This has created 400 jobs, new taxes for the city and a vision. I keep asking people who are walking by, do they know about this? Do they know there are people of color building this? Most people don’t know. These are the things we’ve talked about for years. I think the sky is the limit.”