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For black builder, a dream comes true Baltimore's City Crescent tower is a monument to tenacity

Some people build buildings to make a buck; Otis Warren Jr. built one to make a point.

When the $38-million City Crescent building opened recently, Mr. Warren fulfilled his dream that, in a city with a majority of blacks, a black man someday would develop a major office complex.

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"I had a philosophical and emotional need to make this happen for my community," he says. "Beyond the money, it was a purpose. It was a cause."

The 11-story City Crescent building at Howard and Baltimore streets is a monument to the tenacity of the West Baltimore rent collector's son who put himself through community college by working as a janitor.

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In the real estate profession that once shut out blacks -- including his father, Otis Sr. -- he struggled to go a step further and break into a development clique dominated by the country club set. In an economic slowdown that made banks leery of real estate lending, Mr. Warren, an inexperienced commercial developer, battled to obtain financing.

"Less tenacious people would have thrown up their hands at any number of levels and walked away," says David M. Gillece, former head of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp. and now a consultant. "Everybody that dealt with Otis was impressed with his passion."

But his passion took its toll -- Mr. Warren, a heavy-set man plagued by asthma, once was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Another time, he ran from a downtown meeting in tears.

Nevertheless, he kept going.

"I kept saying to myself, 'I deserve it, I deserve it.' I just had this philosophy in life that you never lose, you only quit," the 51-year-old Mr. Warren says. "And I just wasn't going to quit."

That's not his style. Not Otis Warren, who overcame dyslexia, a learning disability that makes a jumble of even the simplest word.

Ten years after bluffing his way through Frederick Douglass High School, he sought out Martha Anne Sherman, a tutor in Timonium.

"He said his greatest ambition was to stand up in front of people and write on the blackboard," she recalls. "He didn't even know his sounds, so we had to start from scratch."

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One day, Mr. Warren, then married and a successful real estate broker, walked in "grinning his head off," Ms. Sherman says. "He said, 'I was driving around the Beltway and saw the word S-O-U-T-H. It was the first time it meant anything to me.'

"Lesser people would have quit after a month, but he kept pushing and pushing," she says.

For his determination, Mr. Warren credits his 88-year-old mother, Rose, who lives with him and his family in affluent Poplar Hill in North Baltimore. "My mother was my best friend, the one who gave me unqualified love and made me think I could do anything."

Born in 1942 on Mulberry Street, Mr. Warren was the youngest of three children. Neither of his parents finished high school, but his father, who died 10 years ago, owned a nightclub and an ice cream store.

The elder Warren collected rents. and sometimes purchased property in areas where blacks were allowed, but he was denied admission to the city's Realtors organization -- the same organization that would elect his son Realtor of the Year in 1976.

Mark of entrepreneur

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His father was a taskmaster. At age 19, Mr. Warren remembers calling him to say that he was $100 short to buy the Cougar he wanted.

"He said, 'Well, I guess you're not going to get it,' and hung up. I never asked him for another thing for the rest of my life. I kind of got used to dealing with rejection and getting things the hard way."

From childhood, Mr. Warren had the mark of an entrepreneur, says Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who grew up in the same Rosemont neighborhood.

As a 12-year-old, Mr. Warren developed a route of customers who wanted the News American's 10-star edition, which featured the final racing results. And he vied for a spot at the corner of Poplar Hill and Edmondson avenues to sell papers to people as they got off the bus.

"You had to be able to fight to stay on that corner. Otis knew how," says Mr. Henson.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass in 1961, Mr. Warren tried to enter Loyola College but couldn't pass the reading requirement. He took a job making generators, but soon quit to enroll at the Community College of Baltimore. To pay for school, he worked as a janitor every other night at the Garrett Building on Redwood Street.

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During breaks on his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, he'd sit in attorney LeRoy Hoffberger's chair and think about what it took to succeed. "The thing I noticed more than anything else was successful guys worked hard."

He finished CCB and landed computer-related jobs before moving into real estate. With his father's eyesight failing, he took over the rent collection business. Gradually he developed a residential brokerage business in Northwest Baltimore that still bears his name.

Stumbling blocks

Financing for his early projects came easily -- in the 1980s, the federal government was flush with money to finance housing for people with low and moderate incomes.

But there were other stumbling blocks.

During his first project -- a $6 million renovation of 72 townhouses in the 1500 block of West Fayette St. -- workers accidentally knocked down portions of the rowhouses, wiping out the tax credit for renovating historic buildings.

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And his Dickey Hill Forest complex, an $11 million, 204-unit planned community near historic Dickeyville, encountered fierce opposition from area residents.

"The truth is I haven't had an easy project yet," he says.

In the case of Dickey Hill Forest, difficulties still remain. In 1989, a routine audit by the Department of Housing and Urban Development questioned $307,190 in expenses associated with the federal grant Mr. Warren used to finance the project.

Last year, Baltimore, which had handled the grant, paid HUD, but it is still trying to recover the money from Mr. Warren.

A closed club

While real estate development is notorious for its setbacks and risks, Mr. Warren says the profession is even tougher for a black man.

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He uses the analogy of a white and a black developer shooting craps: Each must roll a six, "But the white man can roll any combination, while the black guy needs three and three."

The City Crescent project bears that out, he says.

Mr. Warren had built a multimillion-dollar network of townhouses and apartments and had become the first black president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors in 1986. But he was unable to break into big-time commercial real estate development.

"It was like a closed club, and I couldn't figure out how to get in," he says.

In 1989, with light rail and Camden Yards several years away, Mr. Warren bought a lot at Howard and Baltimore streets for $500,000. Two years later, without the benefit of a minority set-aside, he beat nine developers for a U.S. General Services Administration contract to build a 250,000-square-foot office building -- which became the City Crescent.

Broken promises

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What followed, however, were challenges to the contract award from rival developers, broken promises for financial backing and futile attempts to find local partners -- even though the federal government was committed to a 10-year lease on 95 percent of the building.

After hours of negotiating and pleading, he'd drive his Buick Park Avenue to his contemporary home where he lives with wife, Sharon, a psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, his 17-year-old son and his mother.

"I'd tell my son, O.T., 'We did it. We got it now.' He'd say, 'Dad, don't get your hopes up again.'

"He was right, of course. This deal collapsed a thousand times."

With memories of the savings and loan crisis still fresh -- and half-empty office buildings littering the city -- banks were slamming the door on many real estate deals.

More than hard times

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But given the federal government's leasing commitment, Mr. Warren saw his rejection by more than 100 lenders as more than a sign of economic hard times. "The fact that I was a new kid [in commercial development] and happened to be black played a big role."

But according to one business leader, Mr. Warren "wasn't being discriminated against because of race. . . . He was being discriminated against because he wasn't a member of the club."

Mr. Warren, however, wasn't without contacts in the "club," many of whose members grew up on the lacrosse field at Gilman School, went to Ivy League schools and returned to join the exclusive Elkridge Club or Baltimore Country Club.

Civic leaders such as Walter Sondheim and former USF&G; Corp. Chairman Jack Moseley worked to put together financing for the office building, but deals fell through again and again.

A year after the contract for the GSA building was awarded, Mr. Warren had yet to find financing. And the GSA was losing patience.

Finally, he approached Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and proposed that the city promise to assume the lease for 15 years should the federal government not renew it after 10 years.

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It was a gutsy move, typical of a man who relearned his ABCs in his late 20s. Although Mr. Warren is close to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and is consistently named to boards and commissions, he is not viewed as a political operative.

"He never approached me in the sense that I owed him for past support," Mr. Schmoke says, though acknowledging that Mr. Warren had been a contributor to his campaigns. "And I certainly didn't feel any obligations to him from a political standpoint."

Still, it was a touchy situation -- when Mr. Warren turned to the city for help, he was involved in the HUD dispute over the $307,190 from the Dickey Hill project.

"We were in an awkward position working frantically to help him complete the downtown project while pursuing him to resolve the HUD matter," the mayor says. "But I was not willing to link the two because completing City Crescent was so important to the city."

And the city did make the unprecedented commitment to take over the lease for 15 years if the federal government failed to renew it.

Even with the city's backing, financing for City Crescent eluded Mr. Warren.

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Determined to get the project under way, he bought out his two partners, including black businessman Theo Rodgers, and teamed up with Virginia-based Evans Co., a large, white-owned developer that owns 40 percent of the project. And he got the Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority to issue the bonds to finance the project.

Today, Mr. Warren is aware of his influence as a role model for city children as well as his potential political clout. He serves on Mr. Schmoke's re-election finance committee, and his support has been sought by the 1994 gubernatorial front-runners. "I can deliver votes," he says, noting that he urges tenants in his 1,000 apartment units to register to vote.

But his energy, he says, will be focused on parlaying City Crescent's success into other ventures.

"It puts him into an upper tier of real estate development people who can show they can perform," says Mr. Gillece.

Mr. Warren hopes the project sends a message to the "club."

"It says to them, 'Let me in, let me play, let me grow with you.' At least they now can't say I don't know how to do it."



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