A little-known Northern Virginia developer has what he calls a $10 billion idea for revitalizing Baltimore by making a nonprofit he would establish the master planner for dozens of construction projects to be executed and paid for by other developers.
A self-described boutique developer, real estate investor and urban planner, Kahan S. Dhillon Jr. will get a chance to pitch his idea, dubbed The Baltimore Renaissance, next week before a City Council committee, but the number is so eye-popping and Dhillon is such an unknown quantity that the proposal has drawn skepticism from some local officials and real estate professionals who have made a living building in Baltimore.
“In Baltimore we are not lacking plans,” said Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect. “We are lacking capital.”
William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s development agency, met with Dhillon about six months ago. While he said he appreciates Dhillon’s enthusiasm, he didn’t know what to make of his plan.
“There isn’t a project he can point to [that] we could look at and say this makes sense or doesn’t,” Cole said.
In Dhillon’s vision, the city would contract with him and The Baltimore Renaissance nonprofit he intends to form to lead a citywide master planning effort that could take three years and cost $3 million.
Dhillon acknowledged that he’s a new face in Baltimore, but said his experience serving on a strategic planning committee for Tysons Corner and involvement in other business groups gave him the skills he needs to spur the city’s growth. After spending the last year meeting with hundreds of city residents, community leaders and politicians, he said he’s learned enough about Baltimore to shepherd in a wave of game-changing development.
“Baltimore is in a state of tremendous flux,” said Dhillon, 37, noting the city’s budget gap, homicide rate, drug problems and Police Department issues. “It is on the precipice of slipping further down or having something that’s going to lift it up. This is, we do believe, without a question, a springboard for Baltimore to move forward.”
Dhillon wants Baltimore to reserve 70 city-owned vacant properties — five in each council district — that he believes are prime for redevelopment.
His organization would convene task forces in each council district to involve the community in developing plans for their district’s cluster of sites. Shovel-ready packages of approved plans would be handed over to the city and bid out to developers who would acquire the properties.
Dhillon said he has received commitments for $200 million in equity for the effort. He said a large portion of that money came from his company’s sale of a smart home technology division to a Silicon Valley company. He declined to disclose any details about the sale including the name of the company or the price, citing a non-disclosure agreement.
But he thinks the city should pitch in too.
“They should have some skin in the game,” Dhillon said. “We want them to show their commitment and to be vested in the project.”
The plan, he said, is bulletproof.
Others aren’t so sure.
“It’s unclear how this project will solve the challenges in Baltimore that other master plans, which we have in most neighborhoods, and other local developers haven’t yet been able to solve,” said Joshua Greenfeld, vice president of government affairs with the Maryland Building Industry Association, who met with Dhillon to hear his pitch.
The amount of money it costs to build, combined with the city’s high tax rate, can be greater than a completed project’s value, which poses a major barrier to developing in distressed neighborhoods, Greenfeld said.
People in such areas “have been asked for years to come up with plans and sacrificed their evenings and their busy lives to come to the table and make plans,” Philipsen said. “Time and again, no one steps up to realize the plan and it was just dreaming.”
That’s why developers who want to lift up distressed neighborhoods often must be the first sink money into the area, to set an example and attract others, he said, citing TRF Development Partners’ work in East Baltimore as an example.
The nonprofit developer has spent $85 million over almost a decade buying and developing more than 100 residential properties in the mile-and-a-half stretch between Penn Station and Johns Hopkins Hospital. Eventually, other small developers followed, rehabbing and building new on nearby sites.
“We created an opportunity, so people could point to a place and say, ‘I don’t want to miss out on that,’ ” said Sean Closkey, the organization’s president.
Dhillon is proposing a different approach.
Neither Dhillon’s real estate firm, Regent Co., nor the nonprofit Baltimore Renaissance would buy or develop any of the sites. Dhillon said it would be a conflict of interest to serve as both master planner and developer.
The plan’s potential $10 billion economic impact, he said, represents the developers’ investments.
Baltimore Renaissance would lead a community engagement process to build public support, secure benefits for developers and navigate the city’s arduous planning process — steps that developers normally do themselves — making the projects more enticing, Dhillon said.
The idea intrigued Baltimore City Councilman John T. Bullock enough that he invited Dhillon to present it to the City Council’s Housing and Urban Affairs committee.
“Given the ambitious nature of it, it brings some questions, but I think it’s worth investigating,” said Bullock, who chairs the committee and represents the city’s 9th District.
Bullock appeared in an online video about Baltimore Renaissance, but said in an interview with The Sun that he does not endorse the idea. He said he participated in the video as an opportunity to talk about his vision for improving affordable housing, jobs and economic growth in the city.
For Bullock to get on board with the Baltimore Renaissance, he said he’d need to see a plan that “seems realistic in terms of time frame and resources.”
He said he’ll want to know more about how Baltimore Renaissance would gain site control of properties, where the money will come from — and how much he expects the city to pay.
Dhillon’s background and past experience as a developer also will be considerations, Bullock said.
Dhillon, who grew up in Northern Virginia, is a self-taught real estate man. He studied business and politics at Marymount College in California but dropped out to pursue a start-up company with a friend.
When he returned home, he got into real estate by handling the sale of an investment property owned by his parents.
Founded in 2003, Regent Co. now manages a $14 million portfolio of 21 single-family rentals and apartment buildings, the largest of which has 15 units. Dhillon said. The company also does some land development and construction. Its current projects include multi-unit townhome renovations in Alexandria’s historic district, and a property where Regent will base its operations.
Dhillon said his experience in urban planning consulting is the most relevant to his proposal for Baltimore. He served on the 36-member Tysons Land Use Task Force, which was convened as Tysons Corner prepared for a massive redevelopment that promised to transform a sprawling mess of buildings and parking lots into a live-work city centered on an extended Metro line.
The task force was charged with gathering community input and recommending updates to the Tysons Comprehensive Plan and in 2008 produced a 152-page report.
Clark Tyler, a retired political operative who chaired the task force, recalled Dhillon as one of the few members who came to all 200-some meetings. Dhillon was helpful in bringing together people with different ideas, he said.
“Kahan has a lot of vision and a lot of ideas,” said Louis V. Genuario Jr., the president of Genuario Properties and Wakefield Homes, and a family friend of Dhillon. “He is looking for opportunities to work those ideas and that vision.”
Dhillon began developing his plan in early 2016, after driving through Baltimore and seeing its potential.
He said he has met with hundreds of city stakeholders, including City Council members and Mayor Catherine Pugh’s chief of strategic alliances, but lamented that Mayor Catherine Pugh hasn’t sat down with him.
“There’s a process,” Pugh said during her weekly media availability July 12. “We have the Baltimore Development Corp. If you’re doing development in Baltimore, then you go meet with the development director. There’s no need to meet with me.”
The BDC typically packages and puts out to bid city-owned vacant properties, reviews proposals and recommends projects to the mayor.
BDC CEO Cole said he hopes more details about Dhillon’s plan surface at the forthcoming City Council hearing.
“We have an enthusiastic gentleman who has come to Baltimore who wants to pitch a redevelopment concept,” Cole said. “And at this point that’s all.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.