Power Play Look homeward: David Cordish relishes the challenge of a project in his own city.

February 04, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Behind the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a time-tortured photograph on a retired schoolhouse salutes the last class of School 49. See David Cordish pictured in the middle row. In 1953, the young man clearly looked like he was going places.

Behind the Power Plant, birds and boozers still crash at the fat load of smoke-stacked space at the Inner Harbor. Really, it's no way to treat Mr. Cordish's urban-renewal project.

The Baltimore native could develop yet another mall in another time zone -- make some big deal the locals won't even hear about. Instead, Mr. Cordish intends to re-invent Baltimore's mountain of red bricks.

It's a tricky deal. No one can force people to spend Saturday nights dropping money in downtown Baltimore. Remember when the Power Plant was a nightclub called P. T. Flagg's? The sign is still up, but no one remembers going there twice. Whatever the building will be called next, the Power Plant could fail again.

It's Mr. Cordish's game to win or lose now.

"It's his hometown," says a childhood friend, Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman. "I don't think anyone with good sense would bet against him."

*

Developers, like lawyers, are everywhere. There must be 185 million developers in the United States alone. But what do they actually do?

They don't pass the zoning laws; they don't draw the architectural plans; they aren't the contractors; they aren't the engineer or lawyer; they aren't the tenant; and they aren't the lender.

"All these people who don't want to work together, who hate each other -- I bring them together," says David Simon Cordish, 56. "I'm in charge. I'm the quarterback. I'm the symphony conductor."

He's conducting the Power Plant Overhaul. "Lord knows he doesn't need it, but there was a lot of pressure on him to get into this venture," says his 86-year-old father, Paul Cordish. "People saying to him, 'You owe it to the city because your poppa and grandpa have been here.' " In November, the Cordish Co. made its power play. The company sold Baltimore on its $18 million idea of converting the building into restaurants, a comedy club, a dinner theater, retail stores and a virtual-reality arcade. The actual reality of "Metropolis" could be humans coming to the place. Before it was P. T. Flagg's, Six Flags Corp. had tried an urban entertainment center there. But it left the harbor in 1990.

"I went in there once, as did everybody. I thought, 'What the hell is this?' It didn't appeal to grown-ups, didn't appeal to kids. There's nobody left," says Mr. Cordish, a man who believes even buildings have karma. "The concept doomed that place -- not karma."

Nothing entices Mr. Cordish more than a dangling, failed development -- that and a dangling tennis lob. When shopping centers in San Antonio or Niagara Falls or Charleston failed, the Cordish Co. came to town and succeeded. The company just bought a shopping center in Virginia Beach.

"We've had wonderful luck with other people's cursed buildings," he says.

He didn't have such luck in 1981, when he tried to develop a combination hotel and department store across from Harborplace. The Rouse Co. eventually developed the Gallery at Harborplace. And in 1994, Mr. Cordish was interested in developing the old, shuttered Fishmarket. Plans fell through, and the city bought the property, which will open as a children's museum.

As for the Power Plant, the timing and opportunity are right, Mr. Cordish says.

Loosely, here's the plan:

Remodel the beast, "which is a nightmare inside. Great location, but a nightmare inside," Mr. Cordish says. Those smokestacks just get wider inside and could make -- what? -- large planters? A lot of that exterior brick has to go, Mr. Cordish says. Think glass. Lots of glass, like those glassy, open malls that win architectural awards.

The developer is asking prospective tenants whether they could succeed at the site. "They are the experts. We test our judgment by asking the tenants before we bring them in."

Metropolis plans to open in 1997. The idea is to attract not only tourists and conventioneers, but people from Baltimore and its suburbs. What a concept.

The Cordish Co. will not own one red brick of the place. The city owns the property and will lease it to the company, which will then sublease to tenants. To the business-impaired, it seems the burden of success is mainly on the tenants. If, say, a Hard Rock Cafe bombs at the Power Plant site, it's not necessarily any skin off the Cordish portfolio.

But this is a different deal. It's not some Cordish-developed mall in Texas that probably five people in Baltimore will ever setstep foot in. The Power Plant is in his back yard. If Metropolis succeeds, good deal. If it fails, Mr. Cordish won't go broke or be run out of town. But people talk.

"He stands to lose a great deal if it doesn't work out," says Paul Cordish. "No man is a hero in his own back yard. People take delight in someone else's failure. It's part of human nature."

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