When Erwin L. Greenberg was starting a second career four decades ago, he saw gold in what looked like bad investments to others - old, run-down houses.
A single parent after his wife died of cancer, Greenberg began renovating old rowhouses around Baltimore and selling them to make money to take care of his son.
Now Greenberg, who has since started a development company responsible for millions of square feet of retail space throughout Maryland, once again is finding success in the old and blighted.
His Owings Mills company, Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corp., is in the middle of its biggest-ever renovation and two of the more significant retail projects in the Baltimore region.
Greenberg is working to turn the Hunt Valley Mall in Baltimore County and Parole Plaza in Anne Arundel County from troubled shopping centers into major regional draws.
Despite being in wealthy areas with high potential, both centers failed in their original form. If Greenberg's plan to turn Hunt Valley and Parole into open-air "Main Street" centers succeeds, the two could attract shoppers from beyond their current markets.
"Both are significant regional shopping center makeovers," said Robert L. Hannon, assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "I'm hard-pressed to think of anything that compares."
Other developers in the region, such as the Cordish Co. and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., have gained wider recognition from their work on major commercial projects across the country, but Greenberg's latest projects are gaining notice.
The administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sees the Parole Plaza makeover as a prime example of reclaiming underutilized commercial land.
It has asked Greenberg to apply for state aid under a new program that showcases the administration's interpretation of "smart growth," the anti-sprawl initiative begun under Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
When Greenberg began sprucing up rowhouses in 1962, shopping malls were not part of his vision for the future.
"What we have today is not a culmination of all my dreams, because my dreams were never that big," Greenberg said. "I saw it as a way to put bread on the table and a roof over my head."
The native Baltimorean, who grew up as the youngest of three children in Forest Park, worked at his family's kitchen-remodeling business after he graduated from Baltimore City College. He took those skills and started his home-renovation company. It didn't take long for Greenberg to recognize the larger potential in commercial development.
In 1969, he opened his first strip mall, Garrison Forest Plaza in Owings Mills. He later took advantage of the rise of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other big box retailers as shopping trends ricocheted from indoor malls to strip centers.
The company built dozens of strip malls, from the Eastern Shore to the Baltimore suburbs, and redeveloped some strip centers that had lost their luster, such as the Beltway Crossing Shopping Center in Glen Burnie.
Five years ago, Greenberg approached Brian J. Gibbons, a real estate lawyer who had built a comfortable life practicing for big law firms such as Venable, Baetjer and Howard. Greenberg knew Gibbons had good ideas from working with him on real estate settlements over the years, and wanted to bring him in as president.
Gibbons was at first reluctant to step out of his comfort zone but eventually decided to take the challenge.
"I had six children and a certain standard of living," he said. "I'd never failed and I didn't want to."
In 1999, the company joined with Sturbridge Development on a project in Anne Arundel County that Gibbons and Greenberg described as a turning point.
The Village at Waugh Chapel, a 770,000-square-foot, mixed-use project built on farmland off Route 3 in western Anne Arundel County, was one of the first projects in the area to adopt a "Main Street" design. The idea was to evoke an urban feeling in the suburbs; the new residences would be within walking distance of a town center.
"This project was a steppingstone to help us move onto bigger projects," recalled Gibbons as he sat outside a sandwich shop at Waugh Chapel recently.
In 2001, months before Waugh Chapel opened, Greenberg landed a $250 million deal with Prudential Real Estate Investors, the real estate investment arm of Prudential Financial Inc. Prudential invested in the Waugh Chapel project and the Shops at Breton Bay, a strip mall Greenberg was building in Leonardtown in Southern Maryland.
Impressed with the results, Prudential agreed to help finance the Hunt Valley and Parole Plaza renovations.
"They've showed us their ability to build a quality project and attract strong tenants," said Steven G. Vittorio, a Prudential principal who said his company plans to finance more of Greenberg's work.