Fighting The Flight

April 18, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Sun Staff Writer

Thirty years before most people ever heard of Ross Perot, Baltimore was hearing a giant sucking sound all its own. It was the siren song of the 1962 suburbs, of expressways whisking workers to lush new subdivisions, and taking money and jobs out of downtown.

Bernard and Harold Manekin, now 80 and 77 years old, remember it well. They remember the people at the groundbreaking for One Charles Center, the city's first speculative office building since before the Depression, saying it would never work.

But the businesspeople behind Charles Center "wanted to stop, if they could, the rush to the suburbs," said Bernard Manekin, who along with his brother on Thursday received the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors' first lifetime achievement award in commercial real estate.

"They could see what was happening to the retailers, and they were afraid the financial district would follow if they didn't do something dramatic."

The brothers had been in business 16 years by then, but they were just getting started. Manekin Corp., the small-time brokerage firm founded by the two sons of immigrants in 1946, was to handle the leasing for One Charles Center and the Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust building to follow.

Then the brothers would develop three more downtown towers, including Charles Center South and the Bank of Baltimore Building, placing them squarely in the middle of Baltimore's renaissance.

"They certainly were leaders in, the redevelopment movement," said David Kornblatt, who built two of Baltimore's 24 Class A office buildings himself. "They played a major part."

Along the way they built a company that would survive the wreckage of the early 1990s in decent shape, which industry people understand is not the faint praise "decent" sounds like.

With interests throughout the suburbs as well as downtown and a strong partnership with an institutional investor that kept the boat afloat in tough times, Manekin Corp. was built to survive after the founders turned over day-to-day control to younger executives in 1989.

"Two things let us hang in there," said Richard Alter, president of Manekin Corp. "One, because we do most of our developments in joint ventures, as themarket fell, because there was equity in the deal, we weren't in as much trouble as people who had more debt. The other thing -- and this is part of Bernard and Harold's teaching -- is that the company was very much a relationship-based player as much as a transaction-based player. People said in the '80s that relationships didn't count, but that wasn't true."

Relationships counted

In a relationship business, theirs were among the best. Mayors like William Donald Schaefer and the D'Alessandros relied on them. Major players like Bethesda construction titan A. James Clark, the Rouse Co. of Columbia and Boston-based Copley Real Estate Investments made deals with them for years.

Relationships helped get them through tough times in the early '70s when the Rotunda, on 41st Street in North Baltimore, and their Charles Center South tower were slow to attract tenants. The Copley alliance in particular has gotten them through the real estate crash of the '90s.

Yet their strongest relationship may be with each other. They live in the same Guilford condominium tower after years of playing Mr. Inside (Harold) and Mr. Outside (Bernard) in building one of the state's biggest privately owned development firms, which now owns stakes in about 5 million square feet of commercial real estate.

"Even at 80 and 77 they have a big-brother/little brother relationship," Mr. Alter said. "The best way to put it is that Bernie is the older brother. One of the nice things about them that has enabled them to spend 50 years together . . . is that the two of them have figured out how to care for each other and work out a relationship that lets them do it."

Looking back

On first meeting, they have an aspect that seems almost cuddly-cute, two older gentlemen looking back over a life in which their city sank, then rose again, and then, in their view, stalled and lost momentum.

Bernard is the charmer, the former Greater Baltimore Committee chairman who always had the higher public profile, the one who crossed then-Mayor Schaefer by recommending that the Orioles' new stadium be built in Lansdowne (and lived to tell the tale).

Harold is the quieter, more outwardly earnest one, though anyone who makes that point makes sure you understand that means Harold has a different style, not a different level of ability.

"There's no question Bernard had a higher profile, but it's a team," said Joseph Casey, president of Casey & Associates, the downtown brokerage and property management firm that competes with Manekin.

"Bernie could never have had the extraordinary involvement he's had in the community without strong support making sure the company was functioning correctly, and I always thought that was Harold."

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