One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Otis Warren is a local real estate broker and developer whose City Crescent project recently was chosen by the U.S. General Services Administration to be the new site for its offices. The project will mark the first time a minority-led development team has built a downtown office building in Baltimore.
Your Crescent City project recently was chosen by the GSA to be the site of its new federal offices. Why do you think your project was chosen over a number of others?
think that we did our homework . . . I spent a lot of time talking with people who have done work for GSA and trying to understand what was important to GSA in its decision process. And the thing that I found that was crucial to them was one, they needed a building that had a certain floor plan that would allow their agencies to work . . . (And) I think the key was that I found out that public transportation was very important to them. I looked at that particular location and I saw that the thing that really drove it for me was that it was close to the Metro stop . . .
And then, luckily enough, at the time the submission was due, there was an article in the paper that the contract was signed to put the light rail down right in front of it.
I believe yours will be the first downtown office building in Baltimore to be developed by a minority-led team. Do you think that sends a message of hope to other prospective minority developers?
A. No question. To me that's probably the most exciting thing . . . You have a city that has come on line with thousands of square feet of new buildings and a population of over 50 percent African-Americans and none of those buildings downtown were owned by African Americans. That would make one wonder why . . . I believed it could happen. My partners believed it could happen, and I think that the city was glad it happened. So I think that other developers not only that live here in Baltimore, but that live in this region, can now say, "Well, Baltimore is an equal opportunity development town, you know, and everybody is welcome to come to the table and play in the downtown arena."
Why do you think it has taken so long for a minority developer to be chosen to build a downtown office building?
Well, I think it was a combination of fear and believing that they could not do it or they wouldn't be welcome . . . I think that the key to the developing of a building of any size is that you have to have a tenant. And most minorities are not in the circle where they can meet commercial tenants . . . So it would take an opportunity like the government who says to the world, "Show me why I should come to you" and that would give us an opportunity. The land was not owned by us; the land was owned by the city. Therefore we were able to use that land at a particular location . . . It probably will happen again for us because now the universe knows that we can play in that game.
Did you encounter any particular difficulties in the City Crescent project because you are an African-American?
A. I think that some people just didn't take us seriously. And don't know whether it was because we're African-Americans or whether it's because we're new guys on the block. But I like to think it's because we're the new guys on the block . . . We went to two of the largest architects in this area. I met with one of them, but I just couldn't see the interest. It was like he was saying, "Are you really serious about doing this?" or "Do you think you can win with all this competition?" Then we had an interview with another major one, and we had a lady who was doing all the mailing out and coordinating the meetings and she happens to be white. At the interview the team came in to interview us, and the whole time they are interviewing they talked directly to her and never looked at me, never asked me a question although my name was on the literature. I think that was an African-American problem.
Q. Did your competitors take you seriously?
I think at the early part of the stage, they didn't take us seriously. They just didn't think that we were going to be able to pull it off, that we had the financial wherewithal or that we were willing to risk that much money . . . We had architectural work done, we had hired a lawyer to represent us, we had done all
types of accounting numbers that we had run, and I would safely say that we had an obligation of over a quarter million dollars . . . Our money was coming out of our pocket. It was a big crap roll.
Q. Tell me how you got started in the real estate business.