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Spicing up city living Redevelopment: Wendy Blair and Derek McDaniels bring a passion for history and community to their work on Spicer's Run.


While many developers may hesitate to take on projects inside Baltimore, Wendy Blair and Derek McDaniels are part of a new generation of young developers who welcome the challenge of urban redevelopment.

"They're exactly what we're looking for in a development team, young and energetic," said Catherine Sennell, director of development for the city Department of Housing and Community Development. "You couldn't ask for a better example of a development for the city like Spicer's Run," said Sennell.

At the corner of Eutaw Place and North Avenue, on one of the largest vacant parcels in the city, the development partnership of Blair McDaniels has started construction on a $13.3 million, 86-unit market rate townhouse project they say will attract middle-income buyers and stabilize the northern edge of Bolton Hill.

With a combination of urban development expertise and an understanding of the surrounding community, the two 38-year-old developers were awarded the right to develop the 7-acre lot by the city in 1997. With a sales office on site, they already have taken five contracts.

"Our vision is to increase homeownership and enhance the urban fabric of Baltimore," McDaniels said.

Their approach to development is distinctly different from many traditional developers. "They don't come in and tell a community what's best for them; they ask the community what they want," said Keith Weaver, principal of LDR International, a land-planning firm in Columbia that designed the Spicer's Run site plan.

"Tell us what you think should be here," said McDaniels. "We're like a blank sheet and we take down the community's ideas for the kind of development they want to see."

Many believe it was Blair McDaniels' sensitivity to the Bolton Hill neighborhood that made them the winner.

"It was a great partnership every step of the way," said Doreen Rosenthal, president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association. "They listened to the community." When the community suggested a bay window on the side of an end townhouse, the developers added one even though it was an extra expense. They understood that it was a design element on many of the neighborhood's historic houses.

Blair McDaniels had to compete with two other development teams for the project and was required to present a proposal to the city outlining its concept.

"From the beginning, even when they put the proposal together, they consulted with us," remembered Debbie Diehl, head of the Spicer's Run committee for the improvement association. "When the models are finished, Wendy and Derek want members of the community to come to the sales office to greet prospective buyers and answer any questions they may have about the neighborhood," Diehl added.

Getting started

Blair and McDaniels' attitudes about development were formed early in their careers.

Blair, educated at Amherst and New York University, where she received a master's degree in public administration, had been involved with real estate development early on, starting with summer jobs with the Urban League and Neighborhood Housing Services in her native Queens, N.Y.

She eventually moved to Baltimore to work for USF&G; Corp. as an asset manager and then as a development director for Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse. At Struever Brothers, she handled projects from concept to completion, giving her valuable hands-on experience.

"I had to figure out everything by myself, and that's the best way to learn," Blair remembered. It was at Struever Brothers that she met McDaniels, when they both worked on The Woodlands, a continuation of the Cold Spring New Town project.

McDaniels was working for Ryland Homes, the builder of Woodlands.

With an undergraduate degree in architecture and urban planning from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in business administration from Marymount University, the New Jersey native started his development career in Florida with Ryan Homes.

He then worked for an inner-city developer in Philadelphia. "That's where I learned how to build in an urban market," McDaniels recalled. "I discovered the two most important skills: to have a mother's patience and a bulldog's tenacity to get things done." It was in Philadelphia that he developed a deep affection for historic buildings, which would be a key element of his projects.

Recruited by Ryland, he came to Baltimore to coordinate Ryland's first venture in a city setting. He was at the right project at the right time. The company decided that the urban market was the next frontier and chose to develop Montgomery Square, a small parcel in Federal Hill that had been dormant for 10 years.

McDaniels provided the design direction for the project, calling for 45 townhouses that harmonized with the adjacent historic houses but also gave the buyer modern conveniences, most importantly, a garage built within the unit. The units were smash with the public. It was a marketing philosophy he would apply to Spicer's Run.

Joining forces

Both Blair and McDaniels felt they couldn't go any further professionally in their positions, so in 1995 they joined forces and set out on their own.

"It was a risky move; it wasn't like we had all these projects lined up," Blair said. Their first success came when they won a Housing and Community Development competition for some scattered-site housing along Park Heights and Virginia avenues.

About the same time, they heard that the city had persuaded the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to tear down the troubled Eutaw Gardens 260-unit apartment complex at Eutaw Place and North Avenue. "It was the kind of site we really wanted to develop, so we went after it," Blair said.

For every potential development project, the city puts out a request for proposals to attract interested developers.

"We walked through the door with recent experience and realistic financial figures about the feasibility of the project and that was a great advantage in our favor," McDaniels said.

The team was also very aggressive about producing a project for middle-income buyers that coincided with the city's goal of establishing housing that adds to the tax base and the stability of the city. With the support of the surrounding neighborhood associations, it won.

Another reason the development team was successful was that it understood and appreciated the history of Bolton Hill and Eutaw Place. "They have a tremendous passion for history," said Weaver, "they wanted to know as much as they could about the neighborhood." Many developers are forced to deal with the historical aspect of the project -- they embraced it, he recalled.

Because the development is in the Bolton Hill historic district, the homes' design came under the scrutiny of the city's Design Advisory Panel. It required the entire design to be in harmony with the rest of the neighborhood, pointing out a new sensitivity to historic communities that didn't exist when the garden apartments were built in the early 1960s.

The architect, Don Taylor of D. W. Taylor Associates in Ellicott City, understood the importance of blending the new design with the surrounding historic buildings.

"We drove up and down the neighborhood looking at the detailing of the houses," Taylor said. "We couldn't duplicate everything we saw, but we could include some important historic design features."

The tall, narrow proportions of the windows of the Eutaw Place houses were incorporated in the facades of Spicer's Run. "We're getting custom-made windows," Taylor said. Other design elements include a cornice that matches the scale and detailing of the historic houses. But the most prominent feature is the arched door surrounds on many of the new houses. "The entries of the surrounding houses are all very strong and I wanted to repeat that gesture," Taylor explained.

Public feedback

Taylor, who had been the designer for Montgomery Square, also praised the developers on their sensitivity to historic design. "Often, Wendy and Derek would want some design feature added, but I knew the budget wouldn't allow it and I'd tell them so," remarked Taylor. "Usually, it's the other way around, the developer telling the architect he can't do it," Taylor said with a laugh.

The site plan was also of crucial importance to the advisory panel, and Blair McDaniels was fortunate to find a soul mate in the designer, Keith Weaver. He shared their belief in a community-based design process. Through his work with Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit urban design group, Weaver was experienced in sitting down with members of the neighborhood and taking down their ideas.

"We got a lot of good public feedback and that's what made the plan so good," Weaver said. "The other thing is that Bolton Hill is such an amazing historic resource to draw upon."

The Spicer's Run site, named for a now dried-up stream that ran nearby, once was filled with rowhouses for the wealthy and upper middle class of Baltimore, including the block facing Eutaw Place. In the 1960s, the corner went into a steep decline and the houses were razed. In their place came a HUD-sponsored garden apartment complex that over time became run-down and drug-infested.

"Eutaw Gardens never made its tenants feel like they had a home; it was a no-man's land where no one cared what happened to the place," said Weaver. "We wanted to create a sense of security and place and to increase the pedestrian flow," McDaniels said.

To do this, Weaver and the community wanted the site to re-establish its link to the street grid it had before Eutaw Gardens.

The houses face the street in traditional Baltimore style, with each having its own back yard.

The main entry to Spicer's Run will be on Roberts Street, with a pedestrian entry off Eutaw Place. Because North Avenue had become primarily a commercial strip, the city stipulated that none of the houses face North Avenue.

McDaniels brought some of the lessons he learned at Montgomery Square to Spicer's Run.

A portion of the units will have garages within the house and the rest will have secure on-site parking. "The garage is an important part of the market appeal," McDaniels said.

The reason some of the units don't have garages is to give more flexibility to the pricing of the houses, which will cost from $114,900 to $129,900 with the garage.

The entries to the houses are raised above the street in keeping with Baltimore's tradition. There's a mix of two- and three-bedroom houses, with the basement level having a garage and laundry with an optional study. The units without garages have the option of extra rooms in the basement. "The houses look like they've been here a hundred years but they're all completely modern," McDaniels said.

Financing for a project in the inner city often is difficult to arrange, but both developers were very experienced in putting together the money to make a project work.

"Derek, among his many talents, is a very astute businessman," said David Elam, director of Fannie Mae's Baltimore Partnership office. Their equity partner in the development is Fannie Mae's American Communities Fund, which looks for developments in which to invest private money. Fannie Mae contributed $1 million.

"We feel that Spicer's Run will have a major impact on not just the immediate area but the surrounding area as well," Elam added. "It'll be a win-win situation for all."

Blair is aware that she's not what most people, especially lenders, expect when they think of a developer.

"It's important to get people to listen. Once they do, they get over their preconceptions," she noted. Often, it's her sense of humor that breaks the ice. In a field dominated by men, she also knows she has to be more prepared than a man would be when she sits down to do business.

"We need more black women in development," said Betty Jean Murphy, president of Savannah Development and a colleague of Blair's. "Women are great at details."

Both Blair and McDaniels find themselves in a profession that's dominated by white businessmen. They feel the best way to increase the number of African-Americans in the field is to educate the young. Blair plans to take her 8-year-old daughter's school class out to the site to show them what development is all about.

"They know about becoming a doctor, lawyer, fireman, teacher but not developer," Blair said. McDaniels added, "Real estate development is the last uncharted frontier for black opportunity. But entering the industry is a challenge."

Blair McDaniels' goals for the future are simple and straight to the point. "We're committed to working in the city and, wherever there is historic architecture and a street grid that works, we want to replicate this project," McDaniels said. "And there's a lot of nice architecture in Baltimore."

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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