The Transformer


BALTIMORE — David S. Cordish is in his new eagle’s nest this fine May morning, the top of the massive Power Plant, the latest attraction on this city’s popular Inner Harbor.

His sixth-floor office overlooks the National Aquarium, which by 9 a.m. already is receiving the first of many busloads of school groups and tourists. Across the water, past where a regal tall ship from Spain has tied up, he can see the Maryland Science Center. It’s the beginning of another busy Inner Harbor day that will see tens of thousands of people, two-thirds from outside the state, strolling, sightseeing and best of all spending money in a district that has become a major economic engine for this otherwise struggling city.

Cordish, 59, would like to see the Inner Harbor of Buffalo become the fresh water equivalent of what’s happened to this old seaport over the past 25 years. He projects a revitalized Buffalo waterfront that will draw visitors from up to 100 miles away.

The reason?

"Water is magic," he said, as he surveyed the busy Baltimore harbor from his window. "You’re looking at it right here. They don’t have it in the suburbs. We have water, and there’s no question that turns people on. People are tired of regional malls. This will be sexy."

Cordish Co. has been picked by Mayor Masiello to join Benderson Development Co. and Adelphia Communications as the "dream team" for building on a $27.1 million state and federal investment in the Buffalo Inner Harbor.

By September, the dream team is expected to return with a firm blueprint for redevelopment,
including a decision on whether Cordish can do for the old Memorial Auditorium what he has done for the Power Plant.

The 170,000-square-foot plant built in 1909 to generate steam for industry is now powering a new round of retail and entertainment energy into Baltimore in the form of a huge Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hard Rock Cafe and ESPN Zone.

Early Buffalo venture

It’s not the first time that Cordish has taken a pencil to planning Buffalo’s waterfront. In fact, Western New York is the birthplace for Cordish’s national reputation.

His first venture into urban redevelopment after building suburban strip malls in the ’70s was Rainbow Centre in Niagara Falls. It received a prestigious Urban Land Institute Award when it opened in 1982.

That catapulted the Baltimore native into a series of major redevelopment projects from Charleston, S.C., to Salt Lake City, Utah. Along the way he garnered more Urban Land Institute recognition and a reputation for reviving moribund city centers.

Cordish returns

So why is he on the dream team now?

"You have a fabulous mayor there, right at the top in terms of energy. He’s got very good people there, it’s a very different group.

"Everybody is energized and committed and understands what it takes to get a renaissance and major turnaround started."

It also didn’t hurt that Cordish, a lacrosse star at Johns Hopkins University and a skillful tennis player now, beat Masiello in a game of H-O-R-S-E when the former Canisius star visited Baltimore.

Cordish, whose casual dress in open blue shirt and sport jacket conveys the confidence he now enjoys with an estimated $1 billion property portfolio.

Cordish also has learned the importance of having control or at least a say about the area near his projects. Since the Power Plant opened in 1997, he has also taken over a nearby concert venue and is laying plans for a 140,000-square-foot annex called Power Plant II.

"The way you make a project work is to take control of the environment," he said.

Strong corporate leadership

The chief executives of the metropolitan area’s top 50 corporations united in 1958 and financed a master plan that’s still used today. The Inner Harbor, at the time, was a wasteland of rotting piers and warehouses, abandoned since World War II.

The plan called for creating five major tourism attractions to start things off and then add two attractions each year after that. Ms. Bonnell said it has worked so far.

"It keeps us hopping," she said. "Every year doesn’t have to be a new ballpark, it can be a small museum or historic ship or expanding an existing facility."

The latest attraction

The Power Plant, which opened in 1997, is the latest major attraction to the Inner Harbor. It replaced a failed indoor amusement park built by Six Flags Theme Parks that closed in 1990.

Six Flags spent $38 million to redevelop the building, and much of that work had to be undone to create the Power Plant, Cordish said. His project cost about $25 million.

"We had to gut all three buildings because it couldn’t be used by us," he said.

Cordish Co. strived to find unusual tenants, places that suburban residents wouldn’t find in their local mall or shopping center.

"What cities have is the ability to be the entertainment hub for the market," said Joe Weinberg, vice president of Cordish Co. "The strategy we’ve taken here and in Houston and in other cities is to make our urban developments a unique undertaking."

Cordish used his connections as a mall developer to land Barnes & Noble and his friendship with Disney executives to make Baltimore the first home of an ESPN Zone franchise. He already had developed Hard Rocks, including the one in Niagara Falls.

Although Barnes & Noble is no stranger to suburbia, the 35,000-square-foot Power Plant location is unique. The 250-foot smokestacks of the generating plant rise through the retail floor like gigantic metal sequoias, allowing browsers to peer up into their height.

Affixed to the outside of one smokestack is a 50-foot neon electric guitar heralding the Hard Rock Cafe. It’s fast becoming a downtown landmark.

Next door is ESPN Zone, home of the Monday Night Football halftime and a dazzling array of virtual reality sports games on the 30,000-square-foot second level.

Kids and grown-up kids can purchase debit cards and then play horse jockey, skeet shooter, baseball slugger, PGA golfer or, as Masiello enjoyed, electronic basketball star. A line to enter ESPN Zone had formed a half-hour before opening time.

"The Power Plant is a smash and we’re grateful for him doing a great job," Ms. Bonner said of Cordish. "I think he’s wonderful. He’s a native son who’s doing the best for his city."

Hopes for Buffalo connection

David Pittinger, executive director of the nearby National Aquarium, said his new neighbor has not only enjoyed great success but has spurred greater attendance at his facility, which is beginning a night schedule this summer to meet the demand.

"David is very well respected in the development field," Pittinger said. "The people he’s brought to Baltimore are people who would never consider entering the market. Disney was convinced it would work. That was a huge coup."

Cordish said he wants to bring those same contacts to work for Buffalo. He was in Las Vegas last week at a meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a major gathering place for retailers and developers.

Also there were Masiello and Alan DeLisle, executive director of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., and Benderson officials. Cordish met with the Buffalo group and discussed the Inner Harbor, although no specifics were decided, Masiello said.

"There was so much energy and synergy there," the mayor said. "I walked away from the meeting exhilarated. We have a quality (development) team, and they have quality contacts. That really adds to the dynamic."

"We have found anytime you can tie the attraction you’re building to local history, something that’s indigenous, you are way ahead of the game," Cordish said. "Authenticity is terrific."

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