When developer Richard Swirnow was in the early stages of planning a $600 million medical trade mart and conference center for downtown Baltimore, he asked urban visionary James Rouse about the idea.
"His advice to us was: 'Let the need dictate,' " he recalled. " 'Identify what the demand is and let the demand dictate what it should be. If you have something that is needed, it will find a home.' "
That simple philosophy -- find a need and fill it -- has guided Mr. Rouse for most of his career. It also could be applied to Mr. Swirnow, who has emerged as a key player in the local business community with two Baltimore redevelopment projects that represent a potential total $1.2 billion investment.
The first is HarborView, the $600 million condominium community taking shape on the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. Key Highway shipyard south of Federal Hill. The $80 million, 27-story first tower is scheduled to open in late next year. It is more than a third sold out, with 94 of the 252 units reserved.
And last month, Mr. Swirnow's Parkway/Swirnow Group Ltd. was selected by the Maryland Stadium Authority to develop four parcels east of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Impressed by his plan to build a $600 million complex with meeting space, a conference center and a permanent trade mart showcasing medical supplies and equipment for professionals, the authority gave him nine months to demonstrate that his group can move ahead.
Not since West Coast financier David Murdock came to Baltimore in the early 1980s and promised to redevelop much of the area around Lexington Market has one man controlled so much prime downtown real estate and offered such an ambitious development agenda for Baltimore. If both Swirnow projects become reality, they would easily make Mr. Swirnow the largest private developer in the city's history.
Unlike Mr. Murdock, a self-made millionaire who exuded a haughty, almost regal, air (and was gone by 1987 without completing all that he promised), Mr. Swirnow, 57, is an unpretentious man who is brimming with ideas.
This week, he and a half-dozen colleagues are heading to Dusseldorf, Germany, to market their Camden Yards project at Medica, a four-day trade show that is billed as the world's largest medical equipment and supply exhibition.
And he is undaunted about controlling such a large chunk of downtown Baltimore -- even in a recession that has brought many developers to a standstill.
"I've always been one who feels that opportunity is what you make of it," he said. "And I don't think there's any better time for entrepreneurs to look at the opportunities that are out there than now. I really believe that that is what is going to take our country out [of the recession]. It is going to take the cumulative results of entrepreneurs making the best out of the market conditions, not sitting back and doing nothing. That's what will bring this market back."
An unlikely developer
The man who put the medical mart team together seems to be an unlikely developer, devoid of the unchecked ego that drove many of the go-go entrepreneurs of the '70s and '80s.
An engineer by training, Mr. Swirnow has a reputation for being a pragmatist and hard-nosed bargainer. He is also a self-effacing man who often lets others speak for him.
He let an associate, Swirnow Vice President Tom Marudas, take the lead in presenting the medical mart proposal to the Stadium Authority's review committee. But in one-on-one situations, when lets down his guard a bit, he can be very personable and animated. Responding to questions from the Stadium Authority representatives, he conveyed complicated thoughts about the site conditions and his vision for the project clearly and persuasively.
"He doesn't look at any of this as being glamorous or not glamorous," said Mr. Marudas, one of his closest associates. "It's things to be done. He's never satisfied. . . . He's not caught up in having to have an office overlooking the city, or something like that."
Born in New York, Mr. Swirnow came to Baltimore in the early 1950s to study engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. While still a student at Hopkins, he got a real estate license and launched a homebuilding firm, the Doric Co. After graduation in 1955, he stayed in Maryland and built a number of subdivisions, including Surfside in Anne Arundel County, Emory Hills in Carroll County and Round Acres in Harford County. In 1972, he broadened his business to include specialty construction systems.
HarborView was the first project that brought him widespread recognition. When a dispute with former partner Malcolm Berman forced the 42-acre parcel to the auction block in
December of 1986, he bought it for $24.3 million, with funds from the Bank of Bangkok.