Unconventional wisdom

November 26, 1990|By Edward Gunts

These aren't the best of times for real estate developers, to say the least.

With some major firms running into trouble as a result of the economic downturn, it hardly seems like the time to go into the development business.

But such gloomy predictions haven't discouraged everyone. Even in uncertain times, plenty of people are eager to start their first development project or to build a young company.

Some are just discovering Baltimore's downtown "renaissance" and want to be part of it. Others spent years planning to open a business, and finally got the nerve to break out on their own.

What follows are profiles of five young women and men who are starting their own development firms amid the chilly business climate.

There's no guarantee, of course, that any of them will become the next Bill Struever, Bernard Manekin or Jim Rouse. But for the present, at least, all have high hopes for success -- despite the odds.

Sam Himmelrich Jr.

Sam Himmelrich Jr. believes there are already plenty of established developers who construct office buildings and industrial parks on vacant land in the suburbs -- and who do it very well.

So, rather than compete head to head with them, he has taken a different course: recycling older industrial buildings for office or industrial uses.

Himmelrich Associates' first project involved converting the former Phoenix Manufacturing Co. clothing factory near Camden Yards to office space. Now he's recycling the old London Fog raincoat factory in the Jones Falls Valley into a multitenant complex called Meadow Mill at Woodberry.

He's getting ready to start building offices inside the old Mount Washington Mill on Smith Avenue.

Even in a soft market, he says, such projects attract a lot of interest from prospective tenants because they offer "space with vTC character" and rents that are lower than in all-new buildings.

"Our projects, for one reason or another, turn out to be different from what most developers do. They have twists to them," he said.

A 36-year-old Baltimore native, Mr. Himmelrich attended the Park School, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA in 1978. He went to work for Inland Leidy Inc., a chemical distributor owned and run by his family. His position, he said, was "son-of-the-boss."

He got a chance to explore development when the company bought an old Salvation Army building downtown and converted it to office space for the engineering firm of Ross Murphy Finkelstein Inc. and Maryland Office Interiors. That experience whetted his appetite.

Mr. Himmelrich left Inland Leidy in 1984 to pursue other interests and launched his development firm several years later. For his first project, he joined forces with Ross Murphy Finkelstein and renovated the former Phoenix Manufacturing building as the first phase of the 111,000-square-foot Spring Garden Business Park, which also included new warehouse and manufacturing space at Sharp and Ostend streets.

Next came Meadow Mill on Union Avenue. Inland Leidy had to move from Camden Yards to make way for the new baseball stadium, and Mr. Himmelrich created new space for the firm at Meadow Mill. The old London Fog coat factory has room for plenty of other tenants as well. So far he has occupants or strong prospects for more than a third of the 210,000 square feet of space.

The conversion illustrates Mr. Himmelrich's hands-on approach and attention to detail.

Instead of relying on architects to select new windows for the historic mill buildings, he made a choice himself. He flew to California to inspect projects that might serve as a model for the conversion. And he delved into engineering problems rather than leaving them to others to solve.

He's also open to unconventional leasing arrangements. At Spring Garden, he once rented space to a sculptor for three months in exchange for an artwork now displayed prominently in the development's courtyard.

Mr. Himmelrich is now seeking tenants for Mount Washington Mill, a 5-acre complex.

"We are not afraid to dig in and figure out what's really going on in these old buildings, whether it be the mechanical systems, plumbing, electricity or strategies for submetering," he said. "You can't be afraid of any of this stuff."

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