Developing an image

Canton: A female developer is earning the respect of her peers with her townhouse project in a booming area of Baltimore.

May 13, 2001|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Pat Massey stood outside the Montford Bar, across the street from a fenced-off pile of rubble that just a week ago was a derelict 1950s Canton warehouse.

With architect's renderings and a site plan leaning against the Formstone of the bar, it didn't take long for one of the locals to walk up, seize the moment and begin interrogating her.

"Whatcha putting up there?"

"It's about time they did something with that corner."

"Is it going to block the view?"

"How much?"

The man with the size and face resembling Ravens defensive tackle Tony Siragusa gives her a 20-minute history of the intersection of Essex Street and Montford Avenue and then bids adieu, satisfied with what the future would bring on the block.

If Massey, with her soothing and engaging voice, wasn't the developer of the project, she could easily act as the salesperson just by putting up a lemonade stand and handing out fliers.

It didn't take long for Massey to be subjected to another pair of pop quizzes by several employees of Big Bang Products, a company that makes sports and leisure paraphernalia. The company is housed in its recently rehabbed building on Essex Street, facing what will be Canton's latest townhouse project to break ground.

Cambridge Walk is Pat Massey's pet project. Twenty two-car garage townhouses with prices starting at $289,000 are planned for the three-quarter-acre site she bought for $900,000 in October.

It's not unusual for townhouse projects to spring up in Canton. Cambridge Walk is the fourth in the past year, after Canton Gables, Canton Overlook and the recent sales center opening of the North Shore at Canton luxury pier townhouses.

Yet, while those other projects are being orchestrated primarily by men working in partnerships or corporations, Pat Massey is going it alone -- a woman working in a male-dominated field, doing the biggest project of her life. Her success or failure will be nothing but her own.

Massey is no novice. She worked in the city's housing department until 1986 and then ran the Baltimore Housing Partnership, a nonprofit organization, until 1995. After that, she worked two years for a developer before heading out on her own, creating Katia Development, named for her two daughters, Katie and Maria.

She has the knowledge. But she admits the question is: As a woman in her mid-50s embarking on a new venture, would she be taken seriously?

"It is very difficult," Massey said. "I think the obstacle for me is because it is a field dominated by men, you don't have access to the same kind of opportunities that guys do. They seem to talk among themselves, and the Realtors bring them deals.

"And unless you take yourself very seriously -- and I do -- the guys just don't. [They say,] `Oh, she's just a girl doing her thing. Dabbling.'

"I've been doing it for 25 years, so I am serious about it. It's my work.

"It's just remarkable to me that you just wouldn't get the same opportunity. But you just don't. It's just a fact of life. And once you accept it and don't take it personally, then you still learn to work around it. And you do find guys who recognize [your] ability and work with you."

Bill Cassidy is the manager of the Fells Point office for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., which will be handling sales for Cambridge Walk. He's known Massey for several years and is convinced she has what it takes.

"She seems to get the respect because she comes prepared. She knows what she's talking about," said Cassidy. "Pat has been diligent. ... She cultivates and lets [the neighborhood] know what is going on. She is accessible and not sitting in some high-rise tower." But he adds, with caution, "Twenty is a sizable amount of houses."

The beginnings

"Before I started my business I met with people in town," Massey said. "[I] talked about if you were me and starting a business at my age, [in] obviously a competitive and risky business, what would you do? I got a few suggestions here and there.

"But I knew I wanted to do rehab in neighborhoods where people really wanted to live."

Massey started out doing single rehab projects here and there. Charles Village. Hampden. Penn-Lucy. Canton.

"I am always looking for the funky building that a lot of other people would say, `Nah.' I'm looking for the things that are really a challenge, where the answers are not easy and don't come easy -- where you really have to think about how this piece is going to fit into the puzzle," Massey said.

But making a living that way was getting old fast. It was time to build her business.

"I thought to myself, `I have to get to scale here. I need to do something that is more concentrated and that is more repetitive so that I can be more successful,'" she said.

She found a warehouse at Dillon and Streeper streets. She took that building down and put up eight townhouses -- called Dillon's Walk -- and while she was finishing that in 1999 she turned her eyes toward the old HB Fuller Building off Montford Avenue.

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