"The idea of being a lightning rod doesn't bother me in the least," he said. "In this business, it's about being a visionary, and that's what I've tried to be."
Whalen grew up off Route 40 near the border between Catonsville and Baltimore City, and attended what is now Loyola Blakefield High School in Towson, where he has been involved for years with campus development as captain of his 1967 graduating class.
He met his wife, Nancy, in 1966 at a joint film seminar between Loyola and Towson's Notre Dame Preparatory School. He went on to the University of Notre Dame, married Nancy in 1971 and moved back to Catonsville in 1972. The couple had three children over the next decade: Kathleen, Tim and Tom.
Whalen worked for the banking markets division of the Federal Reserve, then analyzed private insurers and acquired properties for Fannie Mae. He briefly attended George Washington University Law School before transferring to the business school, where he graduated with a master's in business administration in 1974.
Whalen left Fannie Mae in 1977 to go into business with his father, and three years later helped turn the family dealership into Whalen Properties.
"I was a little nervous," said Nancy, who earned a master's degree in urban planning from Johns Hopkins University and works as a Whalen Properties vice president. "But you're young and you think, 'Oh, it'll work out.' "
She was right.
In the past three decades, Whalen Properties has developed 11 buildings it still owns and manages. It employs 12 people, including Whalen's son Tom and son-in-law Mark Fleschner. The firm currently is working on the Southwest Physicians Pavilion while pushing for progress on the Promenade.
Since 1991, the Whalens have lived in a two-story, almost 6,000-square-feet brick house, built in 1950 and assessed at almost $900,000, on 5 acres at the end of Foxhall Farm Road in Catonsville. They have a friendly dog and a feisty cat. A painted family portrait hangs on the wall. Grassy fields roll away from the home before meeting the deep woods of Patapsco Valley State Park.
In recent years, Whalen has become a grandfather, taken more vacations and handed off many daily operations to his son and others. But he remains "very caught up in his business" and still "lives and breathes" his work, his wife said.
"He doesn't sleep much," said Scott Barhight, Whalen's longtime land-use attorney at the Towson-based firm, Whiteford Taylor Preston. "He's one of those guys who works long into the night, and it's not unusual for me to get an email from him at 11 o'clock (at night) or 3 in the morning."
Whalen's friends cite his support for Frederick Road Fridays concerts, Catonsville Rails to Trails, the Lurman Woodland Theatre concert series and other nonprofits, and Whalen said he and his wife have "consistently made the decision to stay close to our knitting, close to home."
He said he targets properties in town he feels are "underzoned" and works to change their zoning to be more development friendly.
He knows his self-professed love for Catonsville doesn't ring true for everyone. "They say, 'All you're doing is crapping in your own backyard,' " Whalen said.
Michele Mazzocco, a leader of Catonsville Voices, which opposes the Promenade, said she faults Whalen for spinning facts and omitting details when discussing his projects in public.
"His information is, I suppose, appropriately one-sided for a developer whose mission it is to accomplish his business goals," she said.
Salvatore Anello, an attorney in Arbutus, said Whalen has built "first-class" developments, but also has smothered public dissent by filling politicians' coffers.
"You see things that don't make sense, and economically don't make sense, all going for the same person who is very politically active in terms of his contributions," Anello said. "The best interest of the community gets lost in favor of the well-heeled contributor."
Whalen said he creates a separate subsidiary through which he makes political contributions for each project, which he acknowledged is a legal way to contribute in higher amounts than are legal for an individual.
According to records, Whalen has contributed to Baltimore County Council members and candidates, local state delegates and senators, and county executives. He's also given to Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama.