Monday, October 17, 2016

John Paterakis, baker, mogul, magnate

Following the Latin admonition to write nothing about the deceased except it is good (de mortuis nihil nisi bene), John Paterakis Senior, a big player in Baltimore's recent history will probably ascend into the Olymp of Baltimore's great in the obituaries of local papers following his recent death. Baltimore Magazine had already called him a Zeus in 2013.
Paterakis. Baltimore Magazine
Photo: Christopher Myers.

I have never met him face to face and can't attest to his personality. I watched from the sidelines how he operated and what he achieved.

His work ethic and his approach of embracing innovation by being in front of trends instead of being crushed by them requires admiration. Even if one deplores the deterioration of bread from the artisan baker to the bread factory, a trend that only recently seems to revert back towards artisan bread. His ability to build the largest  private bakery in the US is admirable, and so is his ability to conquer McDonalds to use his buns for 40% of all buns they use, or as I have heard it said, "all buns east of the Mississippi". I never eat anything from McDonald's but still, this is impressive. When I came to Baltimore and missed my European bread, driving through Fells Point to my job site on Boston Street  I smelled Paterakis' bread, found his outlet bakery and thought I would enter heaven. But I found only found the standard rolls and breads that were as soft and soggy as what I had seen in the supermarkets, just fresher. I did not return but go to the Italian competition of DiPasquale's in Highlandtown if I want real European tasting baguette.

Paterakis advanced from baker to developer late in his life and not without reluctance. That was when the SUN paper began calling him "mogul". The stories vary a bit, but it was essentially Mayor Schaefer who prodded Paterakis to be more than a baker. Schaefer wanted to see higher and better use of Baltimore's waterfront and had already convinced lumberyard king Lou Grasmick and trucking owner Ed Hale to move their industries out of the way of what was later called the "gold coast". But one can't give Schaefer all the credit. Then Planning Director Larry Reich and his team of able people including Alden Christie preceded Mayor Schaefer by six years. Marty Millspaugh and Al Copp of the Charles Center and Inner Harbor Development Corporations were the real urban visionaries of a thriving waterfront from the Inner Harbor to Canton. Somewhere in the archives of the Planning Department must be a colorful rendering depicting the entire "Gold Coast".
Paterakis at Inner Harbor East (Photo: Baltimore SUN)

Back to Paterakis: The man with the golden rolls had loaned Michael Silver money for buying and developing land that had been held vacant for the grandiose expressway plans that saw I-83 connect with I-95 via gigantic bridges over the Inner Harbor, plans that were ultimately defeated. A new and much more sensible vision could take place, a vision that Mayor McKeldin and D'Alesandro had begun, but that Schaefer pushed with more gusto than anybody. So when Silver wanted to do a lame single story shopping center, Schaefer pushed for a bigger plan and convinced Paterakis to buy the land from Silver and develop it. Millspaugh and Copp meanwhile had brought in famed Battery Park planner and architect Stan Eckstut who developed a fine masterplan for what was then still called Inner Harbor East. The City built the streets, sidewalks and bulkheads and then the waiting for development began. It wasn't investors were stomping at the bid.

Marty Millspaugh: Eckstut masterplan
(photo: Klaus Philipsen)
One of the finest moments of Inner Harbor East came when Schaefer's successor, Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Paterakis landed a coup that reverberated around the country and was worth a national article by noted syndicated columnist Neil Peirce: Sylvan Learning Centers relocated from leafy suburban Howard County to Baltimore's Inner Harbor East: A pioneer and one of the first corporations to revert the decades old trend in the other direction. 

My involvement in the matter begins only when Paterakis and Mayor Kurt Schmoke followed Doug Becker's Sylvan coup with a second one they thought was even bolder: A 450 foot high hotel right at the water's edge that both somehow thought of as a convention center hotel, in spite of the significant distance to the actual convention center. I saw the problem as one of urban design: The tall hotel would not only exceed maximum height limits established in Eckstut's award winning plan, but was also positioned at the edge where Eckstut had envisioned low buildings to keep an open view. The AIA Urban Design Committee launched photo-montages showing the tall hotel across the water and my name was in the papers.

Sun article about hotel heights
I did not get summoned by John Paterakis himself but by Michael Beatty, then not yet his partner but already leading the development efforts. Beatty laid it out for me in no uncertain terms. One point Beatty emphasized, I recall especially well, the risk that Paterakis took with this hotel in a location where not much else was happening and for which Paterakis had not even secured a hotel brand yet. The hotel still being debated, was then already growing out of the ground, paid by Paterakis own dollars, no loan,  no investor and no hotel tenant. My urban design concern seemed small by comparison, I thought of my six kids and how I could hardly afford a playhouse for them, and felt insignificant, Beatty's point exactly.

In the end Paterakis lobbed a good bit of height off the top, got first Wyndham and then Marriott to sign on as the hotel brand. He never obtained a casino license for the location and it was never really a convention hotel. But Paterakis received a bunch of tax credits and payments in lieu of tax deals, instead, deals that just a few weeks ago still played a big role in the debate about Sagamore and Port Covington. Most importantly, though, Paterakis' gutsy move had broken the ice and investors began flooding into his development that is now fully built out. 
Masterplan and hotel plan: 150' versus 450'

When it came to the design of the Red Line, Paterakis moved back into focus, this time with vehement opposition to a planned underground Red Line station on the corner of the property that is currently going up as the new Whole Foods mixed-use building. The senior didn't want the station which would have needed a bit of his land to bring up escalators and elevators. All attempts to sway him through his friends failed and the MTA shied away from a face to face meeting and rather budged: Late in the game the fully designed station was moved a block west, costing the Red Line those precious six months that delayed construction begin just enough for Governor Hogan to be able to kill the whole project. 

Beatty and Paterakis meanwhile had parted ways with Beatty developing HarborPoint on his own. For HarborPoint and for Harbor East an underground train serving both directly would be a godsend

Paterakis' baking empire between historic Fells Point and Harbor East is still industrial and still active with trucks jockeying urban traffic night after night before they load up the buns to distribute them all over the Eastern US. Six children will guarantee that the name Paterakis will carry on, in baking and in development. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
When Inner Harbor East and Harborpoint were just empty brownfields

Harbor East on a recent night (Paterakis' hotel on the left)


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