Patrick Turner craned his neck upward at the aged, hulking grain elevator in Baltimore's Locust Point neighborhood. "I'd love to buy that," he said.
Spotting a phone number on a sign, he called it - right then, on a Saturday - and continued to call for six months until he finally persuaded owner Archer Daniels Midland Co. that he was serious. He didn't want it for grain. He wanted to turn it into condos.
"You're either brilliant or insane" is what Turner recalls one ADM official saying. Four years afterward, as work on those condos is under way, company executives still remember his persistence, said ADM spokeswoman Jessie McKinney.
Turner, 55, a serial risk taker whose business partner slapped a "Runs with Scissors" sticker on his Jeep, seemingly burst out of nowhere with the project. He doesn't have the name recognition of major local developers, such as Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. But he has been doing this sort of work in the city for more than 25 years - fairly quietly, excluding a few controversies.
Now the Baltimore developer's persistence and knack for seeing overlooked potential are being put to the test with a new project, by far his most ambitious.
He is attempting to transform a large industrial swath of city waterfront into a "second downtown," with nearly 2,000 homes, a hotel and 2.5 million square feet of offices and shops, including a 65-story skyscraper that would stand as the city's tallest. The $800 million project isn't in stable Locust Point but in Westport, a long-isolated corner of Southwest Baltimore that is battling crime and boarded-up homes.
Fueled by challenges
Turner, who grew up poor in a Florida neighborhood that he said "makes Westport look like Roland Park," is unfazed. He sees not problems but untapped assets. A light rail stop. The crisscrossing of Route 295 and Interstate 95. Forty-seven acres of park and preserved land in the vicinity. And lots of developable property cradled against the expansive Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.
"It is one of the great potential development opportunities for the city in the next 10 years," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. "It's exciting, it's waterfront - different waterfront, but waterfront. But it's also large and complicated. ... I think he has put his reputation on the line."
His name, too. With high-profile projects in the works, his company, long called Henrietta Development Corp., recently became Turner Development Group.
It took a long time for him to build to this defining moment.
A hyperenergetic man who speaks at breakneck speed, Turner began rehabbing Federal Hill rowhouses in the late 1970s - working nights, weekends and lunch breaks around a marketing job. But his doggedness and willingness to take risks are products of his Miami childhood. There, he played with an erector set and dreamed of being an architect, even as adults told him and his two older siblings that they would never amount to anything.
"I think that stayed with him," said sister Judy Turner, recalling the childhood hurt. "He was determined that ... he was going to be successful and he was going to achieve whatever he wanted."
The odds weren't good. Their father, George Turner, died of complications after surgery for a stomach ulcer when Turner was in his early teens. Even before, finances were tight. For several years, at a time when segregation was the rule, the white family lived in Miami's black Liberty City neighborhood because a local auto body shop where George Turner worked rented him the house next door.
"Our front yard was a junkyard," said Judy Turner.
When Turner graduated from high school, he was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam like so many young men who could not afford college in the 1960s. Discharged in 1971 and dropped off in Washington state, he took buses and thumbed rides to get to Baltimore, where his remaining family had moved.
One advantage of life on the margins, he says, is that risks don't seem so risky. "You have less fear of losing something because you've already known you can survive without all of that," Turner said.
His years of doing without give him common ground with Westport residents. When he acquired the closed Carr-Lowery glass manufacturing plant in 2004 and by the next year had persuaded Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to sell him a former generating plant next door, he was - as Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. puts it - buying into "a forgotten neighborhood."
Residents battling decline wanted new investment, but they worried that a developer interested in the waterfront would try to wall them off. A survey for the city Planning Department two years ago found that more than half the housing was vacant, required repair or needed to be torn down in the part of the neighborhood east of Route 295. The once-stable area was a dumping ground for trash.
Crime was - and continues to be - a problem. The violent crime rate in Westport and neighboring Mount Winans and Lakeland was about 30 percent higher than the city overall last year, according to the most recent numbers analyzed by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore.
Into this struggle for basic quality of life came Turner, who told residents that he wouldn't construct a gated community, that he had never entertained the idea. "We want to make Westport one neighborhood, just a better neighborhood," he declared.
For months he met with residents in homes, in churches, at Colleen D. Vanskiver's tavern, asking for their opinions and sharing his ideas. He worked quietly, releasing his plans in August only after winning the Westport Improvement Association's support.
"If Pat Turner does all the things that he said he's going to do the last couple years, then that neighborhood is going to be 100 percent better," said Vanskiver, vice president of the association.
She doesn't simply mean the infusion of new construction - expected to begin with infrastructure work next summer - and the access to a waterfront long blocked off by industry. Turner set his architects to work on plans for a community center in the existing neighborhood. He told residents that a local bank he has worked with would take their calls if they were in danger of losing their homes or if they were renting and wanted to buy. He even brought Dumpsters to the neighborhood cleanup last spring - and stayed to work.
"He was in a Dumpster right along with us," Vanskiver said.
Turner shrugs that off. "Well, they didn't have enough help at the beginning, so you want to get it done for them. I started off digging ditches," he said, referring to his rehabbing days. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty."
Not surprisingly, he strikes Westport leaders as a down-to-earth guy. He isn't the way they envisioned a developer would be. For Ruth Sherrill, 71, president of the improvement association, the first surprise was that anyone building homes around Federal Hill "would want to come to a neighborhood like Westport."
With his shaggy brown hair and his full beard and mustache, the Guilford resident looks more like Muppets creator Jim Henson than a corporate suit. He doesn't have a college degree, though he studied marketing and finance at Loyola College in Maryland in the mid-1970s. "I remember him saying at one point that it was more important for him to get out and do things," his sister said.
He was working in marketing for Citicorp, now Citigroup, when he started rehabbing rowhouses as a sideline in the late 1970s. Once, he said, he sold his car and all his furniture - except a hammock - to scrape up enough money for a down payment.
The rehabber way of thinking remains: He saves all sorts of odds and ends. Thousands of bottles from the glass factory in Westport? Surely that can go somewhere. An early 20th-century train from the BGE building next door? He imagines pieces of it in or around future buildings.
His company's office in Locust Point, the old control center for the grain elevator, is filled with remains of the towering relic - right down to the desk he had made from a wood-and-metal elevator floor. (Why? "Because it would be the only thing it would be good for.")
Turner's significant projects in recent years rethought old Baltimore buildings that seemingly no one wanted, in and around Federal Hill. He handled condo conversions of a school and a hospital-turned-nursing home. A bowling alley became lofts. A long-vacant vaudeville theater was redeveloped into office space, complete with theater-balcony mezzanines.
An idea that crashed
Not everything worked out so well.
He got cries of outrage when he attempted to open a "Crash Cafe," a theme restaurant that he envisioned decorating with a mangled airplane, debris and televisions showing videos of wrecks. "Where would Mr. Turner draw the line on tastelessness?" one Arbutus reader asked in a letter to The Sun in 1998.
Turner, who has started and sold other restaurants as part of real estate deals, guesses that he spent more than $1 million on the Crash Cafe project. He abandoned it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
An earlier proposal to convert a Little Italy warehouse into an apartment building turned into a bruising fight. Residents, up in arms that some of the units would be set aside for lower-income residents, argued that Turner originally said he would finance the project without government money but changed his plans after winning their support.
Hoping to discredit him, they ferreted out information about a 1988 bankruptcy - the result, he said, of a telecommunications deal gone unexpectedly bad.
When the Little Italy Community Organization sued the city to stop the project, he sued the group and two residents, alleging malicious use of process and abuse of process. (The state Court of Appeals ruled in 1997 that Turner could not claim damages because he did not show that his property had been seized.) In the end, he sold the building rather than develop it.
"We were stubborn enough to fight," said Roberto Marsili, a neighborhood leader at the time.
But the developer is well thought of in Federal Hill, where he has worked for years, said Bonnie J. Crockett, executive director of the nonprofit Federal Hill Main Street. She said Turner maintains historic facades as he converts the interiors to new uses, seeks community input much earlier than developers normally do and has been an indefatigable neighborhood supporter. He and his second wife, Jeanine, a photographer and real estate agent who married him six years ago, made the Main Street group an inventory of every building and business in Federal Hill.
"I know he can be a controversial figure, but people who can make changes this big in their neighborhood usually are," said Crockett.
Turner says he seeks unusual projects on purpose, "because it's fun."
"Making a community like Westport better is just extremely exciting," he said.
He skis and mountain bikes in his free time, but he has to pause to think about what exactly he does when he's not on the job - since the job is 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. "I really love work," he said. It was on a rare break, relaxing with a friend at a Sundance Film Festival party, that he met Jeanine. (A year later, he persuaded her to relocate to Baltimore from Los Angeles.)
He is so engrossed that he keeps a pad by his bed to scribble night-time inspirations. "He does it all the time," said Jeanine Turner. She bought him a pen with an attached light so he wouldn't have to turn on the lamp.
His only child, who grew up on development sites and joined Turner's firm last year, said his father's lesson to him was "Don't be like the other developers."
"You're not going to find the needle in the haystack if you're digging around with everybody else," said Eric Turner.
He calls his father's style "aggressive," saying he is quick to make decisions. Chris Pfaeffle, a Baltimore architect who has worked with Turner on six projects, can attest to that. A contractor recommended that Pfaeffle work with Turner on a loft project, but Pfaeffle, busy setting up his own practice, didn't give it much mind. Until his cell phone rang. Turner calling.
The developer waved away Pfaeffle's concern that the project was too big for an architect working out of his basement. Turner showed up with partners a week later, asking for Pfaeffle's design ideas on the spot.
"I made a bunch of sketches right then and there, and then he said, 'OK, hang on one second,' and he and his partners got up and literally went to the corner of my basement as they caucused," said Pfaeffle. "They came back, and they sat down and said, 'OK, write us a proposal.'"
He learned never to be surprised by Turner - and to say "yes, but" rather than "no."
"The ... thing about visionary people is, they don't like to hear the word no," Pfaeffle said.
"He just keeps going around and around until he finds an opening and can make it happen," said his sister, Judy.
That's why Turner loves the brilliant-or-insane tale of grain elevator perseverance. Sitting in a Locust Point cafe, he savored the retelling.
But which is it? Brilliant or insane?
"We'll find out at the end," he said.
Sun researchers Paul McCardell and Doris Johnson contributed to this article.