Baltimore office project lays cornerstone for black developers City Crescent's dedication inspires pride, hope downtown

September 21, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

It was clear immediately that the dedication of the new federal building wasn't going to be an ordinary ribbon-cutting as the crowd grew and grew and grew.

The crush of people that built to 700 wasn't about to miss an ebullient christening party for the first office building ever built in Baltimore by a development team led by an African-American.

Otis Warren Jr., 51, and a 60 percent owner of the City Crescent building at 10 S. Howard St., beamed like a new father. You half expected him to open a box of cigars.

"Everyone said to me, it might rain [on the ceremony]," Mr. Warren said. "But I said it will not rain because God controls that, and God has been on my side every step of the way."

In the happy hubbub outside the building, where former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks was master of ceremonies, and prominent black businessmen, lawyers and politicians were milling through the crowd, it was lost on few that the building was a breakthrough for local African-American entrepreneurship as well as a quantum leap for Mr. Warren, whose biggest deal had been an apartment complex in West Baltimore.

The leases for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Small Business Administration and other agencies to occupy 97 percent of the 265,000-square-foot building together represent the biggest lease the U.S. General Services Administration has ever given a black developer, said Ernest Green, managing director of Lehman Bros., the Wall Street firm that underwrote the bond issue that let Mr. Warren finance the project.

"This is the single largest project the GSA has done with an African-American developer, and it was important that it began in Baltimore," said Mr. Green. "It develops downtown, it creates jobs, it does all kinds of things."

Said Mr. Warren: "It really lets the African-American community see there's another way to develop themselves. It's a closed club, the development industry. It's hard to break in no matter who you are."

He has broken in stylishly. At the government's annual rent of $23 a square foot, the 10-year deal is worth an estimated $53 million.

The success of City Crescent, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said, means more federal construction may go to cities and to minority developers.

"We've shown we can do it right," Mr. Schmoke said. "This is a class facility."

Mr. Green, who is an Arkansas native and longtime friend of President Clinton, said the project represents "the direction of the [Clinton] administration."

"I know it wasn't easy, but nothing worth doing is easy," Mr. Green said.

It was a hard time indeed.

Mr. Warren had to beat out nine development teams in 1990 for the contract to build a new federal building. Then he had to defeat appeals of the contract award from disappointed rival developers and scramble to find financing after his lost his original funding.

Finally, Mr. Warren had to buy out his original partners and replace them with developers more experienced on big projects when lenders became leery about taking a chance with a group that had never built an office building.

Mostly, he had to overcome the economy, he said. But he has said some of the barriers may have been related to the color of his skin.

"It wasn't a set-aside, by the way," he said, referring to programs that reserve parts of big government contracts for minority business owners. "It's probably why they [protested] so much. They couldn't believe we beat them straight up."

But protests from defeated bidders were the least of his problems. Mr. Warren said he went through more than 100 prospects without lining up new financing. "It's fitting that this building is in the shadow of Shock Trauma," joked Mark L. Wasserman, Maryland's secretary of Economic and Employment Development. "Because it died 1,000 deaths."

"The mistake people make is to think it was a remarkable job for a minority developer," said Walter Sondheim, former chief of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Corp. "It's a remarkable job for any developer."

Mr. Warren's friends and colleagues said that the remarkable thing about it was he way he kept on plugging. "Otis deserves every bit of credit he's getting," said David Kornblatt, who himself bid for the contract to construct the building.

"To build a business takes tenacity," said Mr. Hooks, to the crowd's laughter. "To build a business with the federal government is tenacity to the Nth degree."

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