Weekend Interview: Thibault Manekin On Real Estate's Power To Unite
This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.
Seawall Development co-founder Thibault Manekin, a former nonprofit leader and now author, has emerged as a leading advocate for inclusive community development in Baltimore and nationwide.
Due to his firm's innovative approach to gathering community support, Manekin has received numerous accolades, including then-President Barack Obama naming him a Champion of Change in 2011 for his work in Baltimore.
Seawall Development earlier this year delivered arguably its highest-profile project yet, completing a new $45M Lexington Market building. The property has been the site of a public market dating back to 1782 and holds a special place in the heart of Baltimoreans.
A native Baltimorean, Manekin's family name is locally synonymous with commercial real estate, a reason why he initially avoided the industry. Eventually, Manekin pursued development on his terms after an epiphany while in West Baltimore.
In this interview, Manekin speaks about his experiences teaching basketball to bridge divides in conflict-torn nations, ignoring existing narratives about cities, the power of collective action and how these ideas shaped his approach to real estate development.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bisnow: Before launching Seawall, you helped form PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit that offers basketball recreation and educational programming in areas affected by conflict. What lessons did you learn from that experience that you've been able to apply to real estate development?
Manekin: Growing up in Baltimore city, I had these two burning questions in my heart: Why are we so divided as human beings, and what are the creative ways that we can bridge those divides?
I've been on this quest to answer those two questions. So, growing up, I realized with every day that passed, the more I asked those questions, the further away I felt from answering either of them.
And I believe that in life, we have two choices. We can sit on the sidelines watching other people do the heavy lifting. Or if we want to bring about change, we must become a part of the solution.
Since I continuously struck out with finding answers to those two questions, I decided to do something about it with two friends. We got together and we started PeacePlayers.
Bisnow: And have there been any lessons?
Manekin: The lesson is that when you set out to do something different from how others have done it in the past, it will be hard. There will be a lot of people who tell you what you've set out to do is impossible. They're going to try to stand in your way and tell you this goal that you have is unrealistic.
The "nos" and "cant's" you hear — and there's a reality to them — the people saying them can only see what's in front of them in the current moment. They're not necessarily able to see what something could be or what it ought to be.
To bring about that change that we've set out to, we have to bring these ideas to life from the inside out, inclusively. We have to make sure that everybody these ideas touch and feels the same pride of ownership and authorship in what's being created.
Bisnow: In addition to being an executive, you're a father, you're a husband, but in 2021, you found time to publish a book called Larger Than Yourself: Reimagine Industries, Lead with Purpose and Grow Ideas Into Movements. What motivated you to write a book?
Manekin: I've lived a blessed life and been part of bringing some powerful ideas to life, ideas that have counted Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as their supporters. As a result, I've been invited to give lots of speeches and talks.
I'd get offstage after talking about the inclusive way we've grown ideas — whether it’s basketball programs or real estate — and people would come over to me and, as if I had been speaking a different language, ask questions.
Their questions led me to take notes on what they asked and what I said. Those notes turned into paragraphs. Paragraphs turned into pages and then a chapter. Then several chapters. This switch turns on and you're in too deep, and nothing will stop you at that point.
It was one of the most humbling things I've been a part of. It was a magical experience and one I wouldn't trade for anything.
Bisnow: How likely are you to do that again?
Manekin: One hundred percent I'm going to do it again.
Bisnow: There had to be a time when, as an adult, you decided, "Real estate development is something that I want to do." Was that the result of a serendipitous moment that flipped a switch? Or was this an idea formed over time like the ocean shapes a rock?
Manekin: I never wanted to be a part of the real estate industry. To a certain extent today, I'll tell you it isn't what we do. It's the tool that allows us to be in service of the things we're passionate about.
My family was in the real estate business growing up. In large part, it took my dad, [Donald Manekin], away from us.
My dad is my hero, the most humble, amazing man I've ever met. But he worked extremely hard when we were kids.
He certainly made time for us. But I remember thinking, "I want nothing to do with that industry."
To a certain extent, there was an expectation I would get into it. It's what my grandfather and my dad had done, and I never liked the idea people thought it was the path of least resistance for me.
[In 2006], I ended up on the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues. That's the intersection nine years later that would be the epicenter of the Freddie Gray uprising.
This is a part of town I've been made to believe my entire life wouldn't be welcoming and that I wouldn't be safe. That's the narrative that exists.
My experience living around the world taught me we can never listen to that narrative. We have to understand that true answers and true growth are on the other side of our comfort zones.
I had two realizations. One, that America, particularly Baltimore, is more divided than any of these so-called war-torn countries I'd spent so much time and energy in.
The second realization at that moment was that the real estate industry is the most powerful industry on the planet. But historically, with that power and connectivity, [real estate has] done more to divide us and keep us apart than bring us together.
The realization was, what if this industry could be reimagined? What if we could flip this upside down? It's not really about real estate. It's about what real estate can do and what social change it can bring.
Bisnow: Earlier this year, Seawall celebrated the opening of a new Lexington Market building, the most prominent public market in the minds of Baltimoreans. How would you describe residents' reactions to that so far?
Manekin: The reactions that we've heard have been incredible. I haven't heard anybody complain about the market or say anything bad about it yet. Perhaps people aren't sharing it with me.
In our first town hall meeting we hosted, there must have been 300 people there. An older gentleman said, “I don't want this to happen because when you do, where will all the poor people go?”
He was right to think that, and the narrative was that Seawall was going to come down and whitewash the market and make it fancy and super polished and bring in a bunch of high-end vendors and turn it into R. House, which is the food hall that we did up the road.
We knew that our intention was different. We knew this wasn't our market. It was Baltimore city's market. We knew our job was to quietly listen and help the citizens of Baltimore bring this transformed Lexington Market to life.
It took five years for people to get pretty stoked about the market and realize that Seawall's name was insignificant. What was significant was the names of the vendors that were going to be there.
Bisnow: You're developing a site called The Service Center at 2507 North Howard St. Tell me about what that project adds to the Remington neighborhood that Seawall is so invested in and why you think it's the right time to move on that project.
Manekin: There's a vacant warehouse there. After many conversations with community groups surrounding the project, we landed on a mixed-use building.
We call it The Service Center for a couple of reasons. One is that it was an old Honda Service Center where you'd bring your car to get serviced. The second piece is that the idea for The Service Center is that it will be one of the most civically engaged buildings in Baltimore, from the companies and organizations that work inside of it to the individuals that live in it.
The idea is that [there are jobs and organizations] that are moving the needle on things important to our communities in our city. So, there's a double entendre on The Service Center name.
Bisnow: How would you describe the state of the city? And as an addendum to that question, how would you describe Baltimore’s real estate market?
Manekin: Look, I might be the wrong guy to ask. Baltimore is in an incredible place. The momentum that I see here is inspiring and contagious.
A lot of people point out the challenges and problems. We look at those as opportunities, not opportunities for Seawall or me, but opportunities for incredible successes when we collectively chip away at solutions.
Our biggest opportunity is realizing that we will succeed when we stop operating in silos. In development, we’re so quick to guard an idea and hold it close to the chest and try to be the ones muscling it through on our own when we [need to] realize we'll succeed when, collectively, we can move forward together.
That's when we'll start to find our stride and put this city on the national and international map as the place that I know it is.
Bisnow: How is the city doing in terms of real estate?
Manekin: We're all watching the real estate market closely these days. [I’m] not exactly sure what will happen over the next year or two and what kind of recession might be looming, and there are certainly lots of signs pointing toward it.
One of the pieces Baltimore should keep sight of is the importance of development that's not on the water. We've got incredible waterfront properties, lots of investments being made on the water, and they continue to be made.
Baltimore's this neat city of neighborhoods and communities, which tend to be the most authentic places in Baltimore and Baltimore roots for authenticity. If it feels too big, shiny and polished, it will lose a little bit of that Baltimore grit and edge.
That's the responsibility of those folks who are in real estate that isn't on the water is to embrace the smaller businesses, the smaller local owners, and help them find their ways and their paths forward and hold their hands in getting there.
Bisnow: Give us a bold prediction for the rest of this year.
Manekin: [Long, thoughtful pause]
Bisnow: I'd accept the Orioles winning the AL East.
Manekin: David Bramble [of MCB Real Estate] and the group doing Harborplace are going to announce an incredible plan with community support and buy-in that will revitalize our most important asset right now, our Inner Harbor.
Bisnow: Finally, since this is an interview for our weekend series, what is your weekend routine? What are your favorite weekend activities?
Manekin: My favorite thing in the world is being married to my amazing wife and being the father of my two incredible children, who are 13 and 11. My boys have my undivided attention for 48 hours throughout the weekend.
I put 300 miles on my car on Sunday last week, between basketball tournaments in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and lacrosse tournaments in Howard County and going back and forth between the two.
So, I'm in complete service of them every minute of the weekend. And there's also a beautiful dance in [finding] time with Lola, but my weekends are spent watching sports, sitting in awe on the sideline.
I'm honored to have been chosen as their dad and to watch them fall, fail, succeed and pick themselves up and those around them.