Urban Savior at the Top of His Game

Region Focus Magazine

Profile – David Cordish

David Cordish just celebrated his 60th birthday. Toned and trim, with the stamina of a 20-something tennis pro, Cordish isn’t celebrating retirement. He intends to stay in the game, both on and off the court.

Cordish is chairman of The Cordish Company, a Baltimore-based urban development firm with more than $1 billion in holdings and 35 employees. Gracious and disarming with piercing blue eyes and a thinning mop of curly brown hair he is fiercely competitive. It is a learned behavior, Cordish says, from his love affair with sports. "I’m a tournament tennis player," he explains, "and I play a lot of squash."

He is a competitor to the core, say colleagues. And that likely fuels his drive to pursue some of the country’s most unique and coveted urban renewal projects. That same drive and innate intelligence allow him to oversee project logistics and several conversations at once. During this interview, for instance, Cordish fielded a phone call, then motioned for an associate to lead this writer on tour while he talked negotiations. He kept vigilance, watching for a thumbs-up from a colleague returning from a meeting, then asked for details. All the while apologizing, "This is really a bad day."

But his friends will tell you there’s another side to Cordish as well. He shows off a photo of his grandson, then 17 months old. The phone calls, the contracts, the deals no longer seem important. "This is Sam," he says softly. "And I’m Bop-Bop. He can’t say Grandpop, but he’s great with his Bs."

Cordish’s firm specializes in urban, mixed-use entertainment projects and specialty retail centers that infuse new life and income into ailing cities. Often the projects involve public-private partnerships, a Cordish specialty. "Some people say we invented the concept," he says. He has been called an "urban savior" and the "1990s version of Jim Rouse," the development guru of the 1970s and 1980s. City officials across the country seek his help.

Cordish’s vision and magic are evident throughout the Fifth District. South Carolina’s Charleston Place is one example. Teaming with the Taubman Co. Inc., a Michigan-based mall developer, Cordish transformed a dilapidated property into a $70 million hotel and shopping center that includes a 500-room Omni Hotel and the largest conference facilities in the Carolinas. The 1986 project brought more than excitement to downtown Charleston. It was partly responsible for spurring $500 million worth of new investment, including upscale office space and a Saks Fifth Avenue department store.

"Saks would not have considered Charleston without Charleston Place." Says Frank Norvell of The Norvell Group, a commercial brokerage and development firm.

The Charleston Place project also won an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence. "The institute is the most prestigious trade group for developers in the world," Cordish says proudly. "No other developer in the country has won more than two awards. We have won four."

With those successes in mind, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke enticed Cordish to resurrect the Power Plant, an Inner Harbor eyesore that no one else wanted to tackle. The multi-level brick building-a real power plant in the 1800s-had outlived several reincarnations.

Cordish didn’t fret about the building’s failures. Instead, he set about securing the "right tenants" and revamping the architecture. "We opened up the smokestacks and incorporated them into the design," he explains. And he made a few well-placed phone calls to such decision makers as Art Levitt, the head of Disney Regional Entertainment.

Today, a Hard Rock Café, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, the first ESPN Zone in the country, and The Cordish Company call the Power Plant home. The combination works. In a fusion of galvanized and stainless steel, exposed brick and beams, and nonstop visual and musical stimulation, the Power Plant is generating sparks and luring at least 3 million visitors a year.

"Between the city, the state, and private enterprise, probably $40 million has been lost in that property," says Jack Luetkemeyer, president of Baltimore’s Continental Realty. "David succeeded where everyone else had failed."

Four more cities have asked Cordish to duplicate the project. At the same time, his company is working on four other Baltimore projects, and several in cities such as Atlantic City, N.J., Buffalo, N.Y., Reno, Nev., Louisville, Ky., and Hampton, Va.

Cordish juggles complexities with ease. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he earned a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law. He joined his father’s law practice following graduation. Specializing in corporate law and business litigation at Cordish and Cordish, he then returned to Johns Hopkins to acquire a master’s degree in liberal arts. Six years later, while still a practicing attorney, Cordish founded The Cordish Company and began developing suburban shopping centers. His company continues to manage those shopping centers today.

It wasn’t long before Cordish was tapped for public service. He was named chairman of the Baltimore City Housing Authority in 1972. Seven years later, President Carter appointed him director of the U.S. Government Office of Urban Development Action Grants (IDAG). It was during this tenure that Cordish was introduced to the "intellectual challenge" of public-private enterprise. Enamored of the process, he forged a partnership with Bob Embry, Carter’s assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. For six years, the two partnered in developing downtown retail centers. That ended when Embry was recruited in 1987 to serve as president of the Abell Foundation in Baltimore. The two remain close friends.

Cordish isn’t all tough dealmaker, Embry confides. For one thing, he shares his financial success with family members. For another, he is willing to put financial success aside when he feels passionate about a project, particularly those that benefit the community most.

I don’t know that he’s made a dime on these projects," Embry says, "but I do know that he often does for communities what the communities want done. Things no one else would do."

But Cordish is making dimes somewhere and his employees share in the stakes. "After they’ve been here awhile, they have ownership," he says. "Whether they’ve worked on a specific project or not. It’s my form of stock options."

Maybe that’s why his associates work 12-hour days and convene at Cordish’s home on weekends. Two of his three sons, Blake and Reed, work in the family business. And Cordish’s 90-year old father, Paul, still drives to the Power Plant five days a week to practice law.

"Material things are not important to David," says Mark Solomon, chairman of Capital Management Systems in Philadelphia. Solomon noted that Cordish once wore a tuxedo jacket and shirt, jeans, and sneakers to Mayor Schmoke’s New Year’s Eve party. "But he’s very big on relationships. He personally bailed me out of a bad transaction. And he raised three great sons."

Acknowledging Cordish’s public service, Solomon asks: "How many people at age 35 would work for the government for nothing? Now it’s all coming back to him. The very people he met through UDAG are coming to him with proposals because they trust him."

Still, Cordish has detractors: those who say he puts his personal interests above his hometown’s. Luetkemeyer dismisses the claims. "Any successful person is going to have critics," he says, "and David is controversial. He is a fierce competitor, but he is a great human being. I don’t think there’s anything to it."

His Baltimore advocates agree. The Baltimore Business Journal named Cordish the 1999 Businessperson of the Year. And along with such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth, Thurgood Marshall, and Francis Scott Key, Baltimore Magazine counted him among "the top 200 Baltimoreans of the millennium."

"I’m very proud of David," says Cordish’s father. "He is an intelligent and imaginative developer, and he’s never hesitated to spend money on competent and expert help. And that’s why people seek him out. He can’t remake the world, but he is doing his part."

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