Project is putting his vision to test

Developer sees untapped assets in Westport

Sun Profile

December 24, 2006|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun Reporter

Patrick Turner craned his neck upward at the aged, hulking grain elevator in Baltimore's Locust Point neighborhood. "I'd love to buy that," he said.

Spotting a phone number on a sign, he called it - right then, on a Saturday - and continued to call for six months until he finally persuaded owner Archer Daniels Midland Co. that he was serious. He didn't want it for grain. He wanted to turn it into condos.

"You're either brilliant or insane" is what Turner recalls one ADM official saying. Four years afterward, as work on those condos is under way, company executives still remember his persistence, said ADM spokeswoman Jessie McKinney.

Turner, 55, a serial risk taker whose business partner slapped a "Runs with Scissors" sticker on his Jeep, seemingly burst out of nowhere with the project. He doesn't have the name recognition of major local developers, such as Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. But he has been doing this sort of work in the city for more than 25 years - fairly quietly, excluding a few controversies.

Now the Baltimore developer's persistence and knack for seeing overlooked potential are being put to the test with a new project, by far his most ambitious.

He is attempting to transform a large industrial swath of city waterfront into a "second downtown," with nearly 2,000 homes, a hotel and 2.5 million square feet of offices and shops, including a 65-story skyscraper that would stand as the city's tallest. The $800 million project isn't in stable Locust Point but in Westport, a long-isolated corner of Southwest Baltimore that is battling crime and boarded-up homes.

Fueled by challenges

Turner, who grew up poor in a Florida neighborhood that he said "makes Westport look like Roland Park," is unfazed. He sees not problems but untapped assets. A light rail stop. The crisscrossing of Route 295 and Interstate 95. Forty-seven acres of park and preserved land in the vicinity. And lots of developable property cradled against the expansive Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

"It is one of the great potential development opportunities for the city in the next 10 years," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. "It's exciting, it's waterfront - different waterfront, but waterfront. But it's also large and complicated. ... I think he has put his reputation on the line."

His name, too. With high-profile projects in the works, his company, long called Henrietta Development Corp., recently became Turner Development Group.

It took a long time for him to build to this defining moment.

A hyperenergetic man who speaks at breakneck speed, Turner began rehabbing Federal Hill rowhouses in the late 1970s - working nights, weekends and lunch breaks around a marketing job. But his doggedness and willingness to take risks are products of his Miami childhood. There, he played with an erector set and dreamed of being an architect, even as adults told him and his two older siblings that they would never amount to anything.

"I think that stayed with him," said sister Judy Turner, recalling the childhood hurt. "He was determined that ... he was going to be successful and he was going to achieve whatever he wanted."

The odds weren't good. Their father, George Turner, died of complications after surgery for a stomach ulcer when Turner was in his early teens. Even before, finances were tight. For several years, at a time when segregation was the rule, the white family lived in Miami's black Liberty City neighborhood because a local auto body shop where George Turner worked rented him the house next door.

"Our front yard was a junkyard," said Judy Turner.

When Turner graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam like so many young men who could not afford college in the 1960s. Discharged in 1971 and dropped off in Washington state, he took buses and thumbed rides to get to Baltimore, where his remaining family had moved.

Survival lesson

One advantage of life on the margins, he says, is that risks don't seem so risky. "You have less fear of losing something because you've already known you can survive without all of that," Turner said.

His years of doing without give him common ground with Westport residents. When he acquired the closed Carr-Lowery glass manufacturing plant in 2004 and by the next year had persuaded Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to sell him a former generating plant next door, he was - as Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. puts it - buying into "a forgotten neighborhood."

Residents battling decline wanted new investment, but they worried that a developer interested in the waterfront would try to wall them off. A survey for the city Planning Department two years ago found that more than half the housing was vacant, required repair or needed to be torn down in the part of the neighborhood east of Route 295. The once-stable area was a dumping ground for trash.

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