Fixing urban decay

Richard Baron plans to demonstrate in Baltimore his belief that poor areas can be refashioned to work


Touring Kansas City, Mo.'s Quality Hill neighborhood in the mid-1980s, Richard Baron looked beyond the crumbling and vacant former mansions and hotels built by the city's mid-19th century elite.

Though residents with the means to get out had fled decades earlier, the developer envisioned a community that would attract people of all incomes.

His company, McCormack Baron Salazar, took on a redevelopment that created more than 300 restored or new apartments, plus condos and new shops. All are housed in red brick buildings with bay windows and wrought iron railings, just minutes from the commercial district.

Nearby, new offices and pricey loft condos are sprouting in refurbished garment factories, and a full-service grocery store is in the works.

In Kansas City and more than a dozen other cities that will soon include Baltimore, the St. Louis developer has been drawn to gritty urban landscapes to build housing for a mix of incomes, a notion the company helped pioneer. Often, the schools are struggling; residents live in outdated and deteriorating public housing, and jobs are hard to come by.

In Baltimore, McCormack Baron will develop the housing portion of an $800 million project to reshape a section of midtown bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Howard and Dolphin streets and Madison Avenue.

The complex of state-owned office buildings, which employ some 3,500 workers, is slated to become a 25-acre hub of offices, shops, a hotel and mixed-income housing centered on Metro subway and light-rail stops.

Ultimately, the State Center project could be the springboard for the 20-year revitalization of a 110-acre swath, with 3,200 homes, 1.2 million square feet of privately developed offices and 570,000 square feet of retail space.

Since it was founded in 1973, McCormack Baron says it has developed 113 projects in 28 cities at a cost of $1.5 billion.

"McCormack Baron has conceivably more experience than anybody in dealing with difficult urban sites," said Charlie Duff, executive director of the Midtown Development Corp.

"They have a very strong commitment to good design, and they have a very strong commitment to community employment and a national track record of getting things done."

Baron, 63, chairman and chief executive of McCormack Baron Salazar, says he relishes the challenge of tougher, urban projects.

They succeed, he believes, when attractive, secure homes are coupled with programs to turn around troubled schools, to foster the arts and to provide job training for those who live there.

They flourish, he says, when residents feel pride in their homes, which typically offer amenities such as washers and dryers, swimming pools and security systems.

"What we're doing in our communities is trying to create places that focus on housing opportunities for a broad cross section of the community while looking at issues related to family and kids," said Baron.

He worked as a Legal Aid lawyer representing public housing tenants in St. Louis before starting what was then McCormack Associates with homebuilder Terry McCormack.

"We're trying to find ways of serving families and children that live in the community," McCormack said.

In developing close to 13,000 units of mixed-income housing over three decades, McCormack Baron has built a reputation for pulling together complex financing deals; lobbying and winning support from government, private foundations and corporations; and gaining the trust and involvement of communities.

The developer sticks with projects for the long term, say those who have worked with the company, as its nonprofit affiliate, Urban Strategies, works on starting or enhancing programs in schools and the arts.

"Richard Baron's projects make a huge difference, not just on the block where they're located but in an entire region," said Kathryn Schukar Bader, chairman of U.S. Bancorp's Community Development Corp. in St. Louis, which has been a lender and investor in his company's projects.

"The key focus that we share is you can't put unsupported housing in the middle of nothing, or in the middle of negative influences and expect it to succeed. There needs to be an anchor, like schools, churches and employers, some kind of neighborhood center programming."

McCormack Baron will work as part of a team led by Baltimore's Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and including minority-owned Doracon Development and the Canyon Johnson Urban Fund, the private equity fund started by NBA Hall of Fame star Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

The developers expect months of planning with the community and state and city government before a detailed plan for State Center will emerge. But the project, to start construction in 2008, will likely include both rental and for-sale housing.

Bobby Turner, a managing partner in Canyon Johnson, said his fund's backers share a vision with other team members about revitalizing, rather than gentrifying, urban areas.

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