Power Play Look homeward: David Cordish relishes the challenge of a project in his own city.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Behind the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a time-tortured photograph on a retired schoolhouse salutes the last class of School 49. See David Cordish pictured in the middle row. In 1953, the young man clearly looked like he was going places.

Behind the Power Plant, birds and boozers still crash at the fat load of smoke-stacked space at the Inner Harbor. Really, it's no way to treat Mr. Cordish's urban-renewal project.

The Baltimore native could develop yet another mall in another time zone -- make some big deal the locals won't even hear about. Instead, Mr. Cordish intends to re-invent Baltimore's mountain of red bricks.

It's a tricky deal. No one can force people to spend Saturday nights dropping money in downtown Baltimore. Remember when the Power Plant was a nightclub called P. T. Flagg's? The sign is still up, but no one remembers going there twice. Whatever the building will be called next, the Power Plant could fail again.

It's Mr. Cordish's game to win or lose now.

"It's his hometown," says a childhood friend, Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman. "I don't think anyone with good sense would bet against him."

*

Developers, like lawyers, are everywhere. There must be 185 million developers in the United States alone. But what do they actually do?

They don't pass the zoning laws; they don't draw the architectural plans; they aren't the contractors; they aren't the engineer or lawyer; they aren't the tenant; and they aren't the lender.

"All these people who don't want to work together, who hate each other -- I bring them together," says David Simon Cordish, 56. "I'm in charge. I'm the quarterback. I'm the symphony conductor."

He's conducting the Power Plant Overhaul. "Lord knows he doesn't need it, but there was a lot of pressure on him to get into this venture," says his 86-year-old father, Paul Cordish. "People saying to him, 'You owe it to the city because your poppa and grandpa have been here.' " In November, the Cordish Co. made its power play. The company sold Baltimore on its $18 million idea of converting the building into restaurants, a comedy club, a dinner theater, retail stores and a virtual-reality arcade. The actual reality of "Metropolis" could be humans coming to the place. Before it was P. T. Flagg's, Six Flags Corp. had tried an urban entertainment center there. But it left the harbor in 1990.

"I went in there once, as did everybody. I thought, 'What the hell is this?' It didn't appeal to grown-ups, didn't appeal to kids. There's nobody left," says Mr. Cordish, a man who believes even buildings have karma. "The concept doomed that place -- not karma."

Nothing entices Mr. Cordish more than a dangling, failed development -- that and a dangling tennis lob. When shopping centers in San Antonio or Niagara Falls or Charleston failed, the Cordish Co. came to town and succeeded. The company just bought a shopping center in Virginia Beach.

"We've had wonderful luck with other people's cursed buildings," he says.

He didn't have such luck in 1981, when he tried to develop a combination hotel and department store across from Harborplace. The Rouse Co. eventually developed the Gallery at Harborplace. And in 1994, Mr. Cordish was interested in developing the old, shuttered Fishmarket. Plans fell through, and the city bought the property, which will open as a children's museum.

As for the Power Plant, the timing and opportunity are right, Mr. Cordish says.

Loosely, here's the plan:

Remodel the beast, "which is a nightmare inside. Great location, but a nightmare inside," Mr. Cordish says. Those smokestacks just get wider inside and could make -- what? -- large planters? A lot of that exterior brick has to go, Mr. Cordish says. Think glass. Lots of glass, like those glassy, open malls that win architectural awards.

The developer is asking prospective tenants whether they could succeed at the site. "They are the experts. We test our judgment by asking the tenants before we bring them in."

Metropolis plans to open in 1997. The idea is to attract not only tourists and conventioneers, but people from Baltimore and its suburbs. What a concept.

The Cordish Co. will not own one red brick of the place. The city owns the property and will lease it to the company, which will then sublease to tenants. To the business-impaired, it seems the burden of success is mainly on the tenants. If, say, a Hard Rock Cafe bombs at the Power Plant site, it's not necessarily any skin off the Cordish portfolio.

But this is a different deal. It's not some Cordish-developed mall in Texas that probably five people in Baltimore will ever setstep foot in. The Power Plant is in his back yard. If Metropolis succeeds, good deal. If it fails, Mr. Cordish won't go broke or be run out of town. But people talk.

"He stands to lose a great deal if it doesn't work out," says Paul Cordish. "No man is a hero in his own back yard. People take delight in someone else's failure. It's part of human nature."

Baltimore boy

"He's a Baltimore boy who didn't leave home," says Penny Cordish, David's friend and former wife.

With his grades from Johns Hopkins, he David Cordish could have gone to another law school in the 1960s besides the University of Maryland's. But he stayed here. He made connections and got connected. He chaired Baltimore's housing commission in the 1970s and helped mediate city labor disputes.

Even when Mr. Cordish worked in Washington at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he drove home to Baltimore every night. And as a national developer of shopping centers, he could be based anywhere.

"He just loves the city," Mrs. Cordish says. "I mean, there was never a bigger Colts fan. I didn't want to be around him when the Colts lost."

Barry Levinson's "Diner," a movie about guys growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, is one of David's favorite movies. That was his era, and Baltimore is where he grew up.

"He was a good step-ball player. You can quote me on that."

The quoted Nolan Rogers, now tour director at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, lived two doors down from the Cordishes on Brooks Lane near Druid Hill Park in the 1950s. Here, families lived well and vertically. On these rowhouses were steps, of course. Standing about 10 feet from the stoop, a player would heave a tennis ball at the steps. If the ball hit the point of the step, it the ball flew over the opponent's head for a double or home run. If the ball hit the crotch of the step, it would lazily float up in the air and be caught for an out.

"Nolan was the best step-ball player," Mr. Cordish says. "I was pretty good."

This wasn't organized sports. Every afternoon was a pick-up game, and all the games and seasons and scores and scuffles have bled into one compact, lovely memory of childhood for David Cordish. A memory of sports, teamwork and success. "My overwhelming memory is of winning."

The boy had confidence. The boy had talent. The boy was going places:

* To City College, where he won a handful of varsity letters. "And he got good grades, but didn't want to be thought of as an intellectual," says former business partner Robert Embry, now of the Abell Foundation. Mr. Embry brought Mr. Cordish to Washington in 1979 to run a new HUD program called Urban Development Action Grants.

"He's tough. He's smart," Mr. Embry says. "He doesn't mind being thought of as unreasonable in business situations."

One can imagine David Cordish being gruff and demanding. And how he loathes the word "no," as in "Sorry, can't be done." "He doesn't like the word 'maybe,' either," says his father.

* To the Johns Hopkins University, where "Cords" once scored three lacrosse goals against Navy. From lacrosse, he learned the value of teamwork. And later, with tennis, Mr. Cordish discovered a connection to his sons.

* To law school at the University of Maryland, where Mr. Cordish was the law review editor. After graduation, he worked with his father for six years until he got "side-tracked" with real estate, Paul Cordish says.

At 86, Mr. Cordish still practices law. He never left home, either. Five generations of Cordishes have lived in Baltimore. In the late 1800s, David's grandfather ran a family business that provided tobacco products to hundreds of corner, neighborhood stores. "We have a history here."

Father and son shared a law office on Eutaw Street before they moved to the Canton House on Water Street, where they continue to work under the same roof. David's son Blake also works there as the company's vice president for development.

* While he was practicing law, a wild thing happened to David Cordish. Not wild like when he was 21 and spent the summer fighting forest fires in Death Valley, working 16-hour days and "sleeping under the stars on top of a mountain."

Not wild like the summer he spent waiting tables at a Hawaiian hotel, working nights and surfing the livelong day. Talk about a tan; the Baltimore kid looked like a local.

Wild like investing $75,000 in a proposed strip mall, of all things. But the developer had to go, so the other partners drafted David to develop the shopping center. He knew nothing about development but knew something about leasing. The opportunity was daunting, but either you walk through an open door or you live with the sound of it closing. If nothing else, Mr. Cordish is adventurous, spontaneous and chancy.

"The day the shopping center opened, that was the end of law for me," he says. "I knew I never could get that feeling in law."

He still owns the Edgewater Shopping Center in Harford County -- his first deal.

Work and play

What's the one thing David Cordish had to do during the blizzard? Naturally, he plowed into work. But He also found an open tennis court. And over the holidays, he was in radiant Buenos Aires, playing in a tennis tournament with his son, Reed. They got tans. They won medals.

Mr. Cordish holds many honors. But none is are more impressive than being the first man to shower in the woman's dorm at Goucher College. True or false, it's one of Penny Cordish's most playful stories.

In 1960, she was a student at Goucher and was dating a lacrosse player named Dave Cordish. After practice, she'd smuggle the young sweaty man into her dorm so he could shower. Her friends would stand watch at the door.

"He was a great deal of fun as a young man," says Mrs. Cordish, now an English professor at Goucher.

They married, raised three boys, traveled hard and well, and furiously fed two careers. While she worked weekends on her doctorate, her husband worked at home. "He always said he thought he was the best mom on the block." When he went to the office, David would bring along his boys.

Although the couple divorced in 1987, "We're very much a family," says Mrs. Cordish, who also was in Buenos Aires with her family. It was Cordish tennis, after all.

No telling how much time and money Mr. Cordish has spent on his sons' tennis -- from prime court time, to top coaches, to bringing in top players to hit with his boys. When a Cordish son was playing tennis, his father was either in the stands or standing behind the baseline giving instructions.

Reed Cordish, a senior at Princeton, is a nationally ranked player whose game is no stranger to The Sun's sports page. His father has been known to ask his secretary to call the paper to suggest stories about his son. But that's only natural.

Here's the thing about David, Mrs. Cordish says. "He is a great caretaker. He wants to keep the world safe, to keep us all safe. You know, the catcher in the rye."

Some people, she says, react to tragedy by retreating; others find a higher gear. David did when he was 12. His mother, Ethel Cordish, was dying of a brain tumor. While their father tried cases, his sons -- Michael, Joel and David -- were home with a housekeeper, taking care of the paralyzed Mrs. Cordish -- remembered by neighbors as a vivid blonde with a Southern accent. She died after a long, awful time at home. Her oldest son became his brothers' keepers.

"His reaction, without being coached, was to take charge of his brothers. He was a boss man and a pretty enlightened leader," says David's father. "He was also a mother substitute for them."

Well, that's a proud father talking. His son says he was simply a big brother, doing what other big brothers would do. David doesn't want this part of his life over-played. It's not like he had to quit school or sports to get a job to help out at home, he points out. "I had a very fortunate upbringing. A lot of kids have to face a lot worse."

Well, that's a humble son talking. His father says the tragedy helped develop David into the self-reliant, responsible leader he is. The boy "relieved me of a great deal of responsibility." He knew his other sons were safe with David.

Michael and Joel were also fine college athletes and students. Joel was an excellent lacrosse player at Hopkins, andwho went on to the University of Michigan for his Ph.D. Leaving a school library late one night in 1967, "He was attacked by four AWOL soldiers who deserted an Army camp in Alabama. They beat on him. He started to run," Paul Cordish says. Fifteen feet later, a bullet tunneled through the back of Joel's neck. "He laid there, and they laughed at him. He's been paralyzed ever since."

"It was one of the only times I've ever seen David cry -- the night he got that phone call," Penny Cordish remembers.

Before the attack, Joel was developing a deep interest in Judaism. (His grandfather co-founded a synagogue in Baltimore.) Joel became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel. His father arranged for him to have an apartment fitted with the latest equipment to help quadriplegics. "It's an acceptable way of life he never would have had here," his father says.

Influenced by Joel, Michael also became an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel. Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to dietary laws, ritual forms and holy days. Television, newspapers and movies are foreign to his brothers, David says. And the development of Baltimore's Inner Harbor is probably the last thing they contemplate.

"Their lives couldn't be any more removed from mine," David says.

The Cordish brothers stay in touch, and David certainly respects their spiritual way of life. But for himself, and with all due respect to religious ritual, "You have to be much more active in this world and do good deeds but on a practical basis."

David Cordish wants to do something active and practical for Baltimore by making Metropolis work.

"I've been thinking a lot about this lately," the developer says. "Why do I keep working? The money is not an issue.

"It's the winning and losing."

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