Otis Warren, entrepreneur


Completing a fully leased office building project these economically distressed days is a remarkable achievement. It is all the more remarkable for a small developer who has never pulled off a project of that magnitude. The fact it was achieved by an African-American developer is simultaneously historic and irrelevant.

Otis Warren Jr. had every reason to act like a proud parent at the formal opening of the $38 million City Crescent office development on Howard Street several weeks ago. The market for commercial real estate is bleak; financing for it from banks and other lenders who have been battered by its collapse is scarce indeed. But after a long struggle Mr. Warren brought off a major office deal while other potential projects are languishing as parking lots or parks.

The fact that Mr. Warren is black made the occasion even more noteworthy, but this was no minority set-aside project. He won the development rights in a head-to-head competition with much more experienced developers, including the Rouse Co. Despite the security of 10-year leases from federal agencies for virtually all his space, he struggled to find long-term financing, changing partners several times but always keeping control for himself through disappointment after disappointment.

Ultimately he financed the project with the aid of a guarantee from the city government to use the space if the federal government failed to renew its leases.

Mr. Warren is another example of African-American businessmen who have entered the major leagues despite handicaps that their white counterparts seldom experience. Blatant prejudice against black entrepreneurs is less an obstacle than more subtle barriers, such as the Catch-22 requirement that demands prior successes while making them difficult to achieve. As one local business leader put it, it wasn't so much his race but the fact that he "wasn't a member of the club."

But there weren't any black members of the club for him to turn to. More and more, the Otis Warrens are knocking down those barriers and succeeding not only for themselves but also opening the way for other minority entrepreneurs to follow.

There was a neat bit of symbolism at the City Crescent ceremony noticed by those familiar with Mr. Warren's career. More than a dozen years ago he was aided by a Small Business Administration loan. Now he's the agency's local landlord.

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