A Virginia-based developer went before a Baltimore’s City Council committee Thursday to pitch his $10 billion idea to remake 70 city-owned vacant sites.
He was greeted with skepticism.
That's because Kahan S. Dhillon Jr.’s idea, called The Baltimore Renaissance, doesn’t call for him to build any projects himself — but merely act as a master planner for the city. And he wants taxpayers to pay for $3.5 million in planning costs.
In a city with thousands of vacant properties and a high crime rate, Baltimore leaders are frequently eager to partner with developers to invest in revitalization projects. But several members of the City Council’s housing panel questioned the specifics and the funding behind Dhillon’s idea during a nearly three-hour hearing.
“We can’t afford for anyone to make promises to our community that they can’t deliver," said City Council member Leon Pinkett, who represents West Baltimore. "We've got to be extremely protective of our community."
Dhillon, who packed the council chambers with supporters wearing “Baltimore Building Baltimore” shirts, pitched his idea as a game-changer that would plan five large developments in each of the city's 14 council districts. He said he didn't want to start small and simply do one project because Baltimore needs a large makeover.
“Either do it right and the whole way, or don’t do it at all," he said. “Baltimore has every negative. To turn it around, it's going to take something substantial to do it.”
William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s development arm, met with Dhillon about six months ago. Cole told The Baltimore Sun recently that while he appreciates Dhillon’s enthusiasm, he didn’t know what to make of his plan.
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. Even though many Baltimore neighborhoods already have master plans, he said 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.
“The city is a place with vast opportunities and lost opportunities,” he said. “My experience, relationships and resources could be very useful in moving the city forward.”
Dhillon, who was joined at the hearing by ministers, community leaders and business people, 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 nondisclosure agreement.
He told council members Thursday he could also raise money quickly using connections on Capitol Hill.
“You said you can raise a billion dollars. What do you need us for?” Pinkett said.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer questioned how Dhillon had selected the redevelopment sites. He told the businessman that the sites selected in his district were neither vacant nor city-owned.
Dhillon said his map of proposed development sites was subject to change.
When Schleifer asked Dhillon to share his bank account statements with the council, Dhillon declined. “I’m not applying for a loan here,” he said.
After that, Schleifer posted on Twitter: “I guess $3.5 million is a gift, not a loan.”
Councilman Eric T. Costello questioned whether Dhillon had any evidence to show that “10 billion dollars is a real number.” The developer said he had 300 pages of supporting materials.
As Dhillon meets with people across Baltimore, he said, he’s assuring folks that he will not seek a large tax-increment-financing deal to complete the projects.
“Our approach is little or no TIFs,” he said.
City Councilman John Bullock called for a hearing on the project after Dhillon featured him in promotional video on his website.
"We all want to see a better Baltimore," Bullock said. “We want to make sure that all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted.”
Dhillon said he wasn’t surprised by the skeptical response from some.
“When you come in with a new plan and a new approach, you may be viewed as a revolutionary or a disturber,” he said. “However, without unique or out-of-the-box ideas progress never occurs.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.