For black builder, a dream comes true Baltimore's City Crescent tower is a monument to tenacity

October 10, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Some people build buildings to make a buck; Otis Warren Jr. built one to make a point.

When the $38-million City Crescent building opened recently, Mr. Warren fulfilled his dream that, in a city with a majority of blacks, a black man someday would develop a major office complex.

"I had a philosophical and emotional need to make this happen for my community," he says. "Beyond the money, it was a purpose. It was a cause."

The 11-story City Crescent building at Howard and Baltimore streets is a monument to the tenacity of the West Baltimore rent collector's son who put himself through community college by working as a janitor.

In the real estate profession that once shut out blacks -- including his father, Otis Sr. -- he struggled to go a step further and break into a development clique dominated by the country club set. In an economic slowdown that made banks leery of real estate lending, Mr. Warren, an inexperienced commercial developer, battled to obtain financing.

"Less tenacious people would have thrown up their hands at any number of levels and walked away," says David M. Gillece, former head of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp. and now a consultant. "Everybody that dealt with Otis was impressed with his passion."

But his passion took its toll -- Mr. Warren, a heavy-set man plagued by asthma, once was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Another time, he ran from a downtown meeting in tears.

Nevertheless, he kept going.

"I kept saying to myself, 'I deserve it, I deserve it.' I just had this philosophy in life that you never lose, you only quit," the 51-year-old Mr. Warren says. "And I just wasn't going to quit."

That's not his style. Not Otis Warren, who overcame dyslexia, a learning disability that makes a jumble of even the simplest word.

Ten years after bluffing his way through Frederick Douglass High School, he sought out Martha Anne Sherman, a tutor in Timonium.

"He said his greatest ambition was to stand up in front of people and write on the blackboard," she recalls. "He didn't even know his sounds, so we had to start from scratch."

One day, Mr. Warren, then married and a successful real estate broker, walked in "grinning his head off," Ms. Sherman says. "He said, 'I was driving around the Beltway and saw the word S-O-U-T-H. It was the first time it meant anything to me.'

"Lesser people would have quit after a month, but he kept pushing and pushing," she says.

For his determination, Mr. Warren credits his 88-year-old mother, Rose, who lives with him and his family in affluent Poplar Hill in North Baltimore. "My mother was my best friend, the one who gave me unqualified love and made me think I could do anything."

Born in 1942 on Mulberry Street, Mr. Warren was the youngest of three children. Neither of his parents finished high school, but his father, who died 10 years ago, owned a nightclub and an ice cream store.

The elder Warren collected rents. and sometimes purchased property in areas where blacks were allowed, but he was denied admission to the city's Realtors organization -- the same organization that would elect his son Realtor of the Year in 1976.

Mark of entrepreneur

His father was a taskmaster. At age 19, Mr. Warren remembers calling him to say that he was $100 short to buy the Cougar he wanted.

"He said, 'Well, I guess you're not going to get it,' and hung up. I never asked him for another thing for the rest of my life. I kind of got used to dealing with rejection and getting things the hard way."

From childhood, Mr. Warren had the mark of an entrepreneur, says Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who grew up in the same Rosemont neighborhood.

As a 12-year-old, Mr. Warren developed a route of customers who wanted the News American's 10-star edition, which featured the final racing results. And he vied for a spot at the corner of Poplar Hill and Edmondson avenues to sell papers to people as they got off the bus.

"You had to be able to fight to stay on that corner. Otis knew how," says Mr. Henson.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass in 1961, Mr. Warren tried to enter Loyola College but couldn't pass the reading requirement. He took a job making generators, but soon quit to enroll at the Community College of Baltimore. To pay for school, he worked as a janitor every other night at the Garrett Building on Redwood Street.

During breaks on his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, he'd sit in attorney LeRoy Hoffberger's chair and think about what it took to succeed. "The thing I noticed more than anything else was successful guys worked hard."

He finished CCB and landed computer-related jobs before moving into real estate. With his father's eyesight failing, he took over the rent collection business. Gradually he developed a residential brokerage business in Northwest Baltimore that still bears his name.

Stumbling blocks

Financing for his early projects came easily -- in the 1980s, the federal government was flush with money to finance housing for people with low and moderate incomes.

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