Even when he's building parking garages, Struever leaves an eccentric visual imprint on the neighborhood, such as the green chair jutting out sideways over the sidewalk from the Franklin Street garage in Mount Vernon.
Other developers, such as David Cordish, who built the Power Plant restaurant complex on the Inner Harbor, view it as a sign of financial strength that they can attract national chains like Barnes & Noble and the Hard Rock Cafe. But Struever makes a point of doing the opposite - leasing his retail buildings almost exclusively to locally owned businesses such as the Atlantic seafood restaurant or Bibelot bookstores. (The risk of this strategy became clear last month, however, when Bibelot went bankrupt, leaving the American Can Co. building without its most visible tenant.)
Struever Bros. rarely puts much of its own money into projects, however. For example, it's invested just $1.5 million cash so far in the $75.5 million Tide Point project. Sometimes Struever aligns himself with partners who have deep pockets, such as millionaire bakery owner John Paterakis. Or Struever uses investments from banks that are based on preservation tax credits that the investors use as a tax write-off.
Not every Struever enterprise has made money. The company lost at least $4 million buying the Port Liberty waterfront industrial park in Fairfield in 1989. It was unable to find tenants, and in January 2000 the city forgave a $300,000 loan so Struever Bros. could sell most of the land, according to city records.
Hurt by the recession of the early 1990s, Struever Bros. also lost millions building the Canton Cove Condominiums on Boston Street. The firm was more than $100 million in debt at one point and facing the threat of bankruptcy, the partners acknowledge.
"Just after we got married [in 1990], the market collapsed and Canton Cove became a nightmare," says Riggle, Struever's second wife. "I remember reaching over once in the middle of the night and putting my hand on Bill and he was just covered in sweat. I said, `Honey, you're going to have a heart attack!' ... It was horrible."
During the mid-1990s, Struever's work on public housing raised ethical questions after former Mayor Schmoke selected a Struever Bros. director, Daniel Henson, as head of the city's Housing Authority. Deborah Vincent of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development decided it was a conflict of interest for Henson's agency to award a Struever Bros. partnership a $83 million contract to develop a 391-unit housing complex called the Terraces while Henson maintained a financial relationship with his former business partners.
Vincent granted a waiver of the conflict of interest laws because the project was almost complete, but she wrote: "The selection of Struever Brothers for contracts with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City could call into question the public confidence in the fairness of the selection process."
Struever says: "It was a very, very bitter thing, a lot of mess. We tried to be very, very upfront about the whole thing. HUD approved it from the very beginning. And we made sure that everything was done on the up and up."
During his work building Tide Point, Struever has been criticized for his scheming as well as praised for his generosity.
State Del. Brian McHale and others objected last year when Struever appeared to be trying to muscle aside blue-collar jobs for his white-collar project. The developer asked the Maryland Port Administration to stop leasing land just east of Tide Point to a molasses plant so that he could use the land. (The administration turned him down). Meanwhile, Joyce Agresott, vice president of the parents association of Francis Scott Key elementary school in Locust Point, praised Struever Bros.' donation of $100,000 to buy computers and build a media lab for her students. Key is one of 15 public schools and educational programs that have received about $1 million in donations from the company over the past four years.
Overall, Struever has earned more supporters than critics.
He has won several awards, including one this year from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for his "bay saving excellence" in promoting urban development as an alternative to suburban sprawl. Ernst & Young, one of the world's largest accounting firms, named Struever Maryland's "Entrepreneur of the Year" for 2000, while The Sun's editorial board last year named him "Marylander of the Year."
Yet Struever doesn't have much to show for all his success. He has, for instance, no real estate or cars in his own name. This could be because, as he asserts, he returns much of his profits to his company to keep it healthy. Or it could be that he's being careful about his assets because the divorce action filed by his second wife hasn't been finalized. He's clearly not poor. He went skiing in Deer Valley, Utah, recently and vacationed in Scotland last year.
His brother, Fred, says Bill Struever has been hurt financially by his two broken marriages.