Donald Manekin means everything to Seawall, and for many of us, he represents all that we hope to be and do on our best days. Donald has always lived by the mantra of “exceeding expectations” – whether for his family, his companies, or his beloved Baltimore. We carry that approach with us to this day. From all of us at Seawall – thank you, Donald.
You began working in the real estate industry in your early 20s. How did you get into real estate and what did it mean to you to do that kind of work?
My father and uncle had started a real estate company in 1946. They were commercial and industrial real estate brokers representing buyers and sellers on a fee basis. I grew up around all of this but never thought I had the intellectual capacity to work in the business. I thought it was much more about crunching numbers, and at best, I was a C- student in school. [When I went to college,] I figured I would major in early childhood education because I can probably figure out what the first and second-grade students need to be taught. But I took an internship with my father’s company the summer before I graduated college and found that it had nothing to do with crunching numbers but had everything to do with building relationships.
So, you decided to keep working with your family’s company; what was the focus of the business at that point in time and what kind of company culture did you all have?
The second generation that came into the business had grown up around it, and at that time, we were working in Columbia, Maryland as that community grew. We mostly worked with companies to design and build small blocks of space where they could grow and expand. We built a company based on teams and relationships and had some amazing people working with us. I was there for 25 years, and they were halcyon days for me. We had a group of people much like the ones at Seawall now who felt the power to do the hard work of building relationships. When I got there in 1975, there were about 15 of us [working in the business]. And in 2000 there were 144 of us and three offices between Baltimore, Columbia, and Frederick.
But in 2000, you also decided to leave the family business; what did you do next and how did the work with Seawall begin?
Education had always been a passion of mine. At that time, we started a small foundation helping rural educators, and I had the honor of being the chief operating officer for Baltimore City Public Schools for a few years. Then, my son Thibault came back from working abroad with a nonprofit in South Africa, and he asked me to go out to dinner. He asked me if I would help him start a real estate company, but one that would not be identified that way. He envisioned a company that used buildings to create community and empower people. I don’t think there’s a greater honor than one of your children asking if you will help him start a company. And so, that’s how all of this got started.
The first Seawall project at Miller’s Court focused on building housing for teachers and office space for nonprofits - two areas that you had experience in. How did the mission of that space come about?
From the beginning, we have always been focused on building from the inside out, so that none of this is ever “ours.” When we started out, I was on the board of Teach for America in Baltimore. Every year, they had an awesome group of young people coming to Baltimore to teach in the city schools, and they had a week to make the decision about where to live. All that most of them know about Baltimore is what they’ve heard from The Wire, and they want to live in a nice place close to the communities where they’ll be teaching. So we started this conversation about how we could take the mystery out of where to live and put them in a supportive environment of other teachers with the resources to be great at what they do. And then, let them get to know Baltimore over time and hopefully, they’ll fall in love with what they’re doing and with the city and want to make it their home. That was our vision for the apartments at Miller’s Court.
And what about for the nonprofit office space in that building?
When I had the unforeseen opportunity to be the interim chief operating officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, I had the chance to meet any number of nonprofits who were underpinning the success of the school system. And so in conversations, what I heard was that they were all doing great work for the students of Baltimore, but they’re in 30 different offices around the city, paying rent to 30 different landlords, getting no economy of scale and no hallway collaboration. Everything was done by appointment. So we began to think about how the office space could bring these often isolated organizations together.
But there was also a community piece to the project, right?
Yes, that was the third important party in the project. We made the conscious decision that we didn’t want to be one-off developers [in Remington] who only did this project here, but that we truly invested in this neighborhood. We wanted to engage the community so they knew they were a stakeholder and partner in the success of the project. I don’t think the ink was dry on the contract to buy the building before we had the community groups in a room sharing our vision for teacher housing and office space for nonprofits and pointing out that they would be the neighbors and should have just as much of a voice in the project.
And since then, that mission at Seawall of listening to end users has only expanded. How do you see the company and the projects they take on now?
The journey to this point has been spectacular. Every one of the projects since [Miller’s Court] has been driven by someone else’s ideas that are looking for the creativity to help make them happen. I now have a wonderful bird’s-eye view of what Seawall looks like and the young people who are working with us who think that what they’re doing is a much higher purpose than just bricks and sticks. I look at all of it with a big smile on my face.