Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bill Struever - just savvy or a savior?

Next week William ("Bill") Struever will receive a "lifetime achievement award" of the Urban Land Institute Baltimore as part of the annual ULI Wavemaker awards. In the increasingly divided public discussion developers sit in a precarious position. Courted by mayors and economic development officers as saviors they are also painted as evil exploiters of vulnerable populations by some community activists. Where does Bill Struever fit, a big force in Baltimore's development since 1974?
Bill Struever at Innovation  Week 2013: Rumpled
but energetic (
ULI’s Lifetime Achievement Award is given to a recognized leader in the development community who has served more than two decades; has touched all aspects of development (acquisition, design, financing, implementation); and has touched a variety of different land uses (retail, office residential, hospitality, etc.).
Even though Struever has been instrumental in shaping Baltimore for three decades he has largely escaped the often vicious public debates and the role of developers in gentrification, white supremacy that has roiled Baltimore especially in the context of the Port Covington TIF and the fact that the city now is often described as the "white L" and the "black butterfly", describing the shape of the "two Baltimores", the one glitzy, prosperous and full of construction cranes, the other poor and dis-invested.

That Struever isn't pigeonholed in that binary is due in part to having been washed from public view by the financial crisis of 2008 which brought eventually the collapse of his construction and development empire that he and his brother had built together with partner Cobber Eccles under the name Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse. More importantly, though, Struever never fit the image of the evil developer who is awash in money he has siphoned from the poor.

Struever's Baltimore presence begins like David Warnock's with a pick-up truck riding into town, except that Struever and his brother came nine years before Warnock and began a construction company by fixing up rowhouses. Unlike Warnock, Struever never wanted to run for public office, even though he was asked to do so many times. "Too many skeletons in the closet" he told me once, referring less to a secret scandal than to the simple truth that developers are deal makers and that their particular style of sausage making will never look all that great in light of public scrutiny that comes with an election campaign.
SBE&R had to pull out of Providence in 2009
Struevers first projects include a rowhouse infill named Grindalls Yard in Federal Hill, but soon he set his eyes on bigger projects such as Tindeco, Canton Cove, the American Can Company, Clippers Mills, Steiff Silver, Procter and Gamble/Tide Point and eventually reached beyond Baltimore and Maryland to places such as Wilmington, Durham, and Providence.  When the financial crisis hit, it caught Struever highly leveraged as it had been typical for all his projects which were tangled financial deals usually including historic tax credits and grants, too complicated to understand for most mortals. Struever emphasizes that in spite of the collapse, he never declared bankruptcy but began selling his assets to cover his obligations. Even though that took many years and left many creditors holding the bag with only cents to the dollars they had spent on Struever's projects, it seems like a more honorable path, certainly one where the personal assets didn't remain untouched.
Mixed use redevelopment project Clipper Mill (Photo: CBH)

Still, depending whom one asks and how directly someone was affected by the demise of SBE&R, very different opinions about William C. Struever, the developer emerge. Nobody, though, accuses Struever of a lavish lifestyle. Whether at the height of his successes or in the valley of his defeat, he always looked rumpled, slightly hung-over, under-dressed and at time precariously like a homeless who just had walked in from the street, even when he was a keynote speaker. He wasn't stingy, either. His holiday parties at Cross Street Market remain a matter of Baltimore lore until they became so crowded, that the venue had to be abandoned in favor of celebrations in his half finished projects. One year the holiday party took place at Proctor and Gamble before the place had lighting or heat. The path to the festivities led through the cavernous soap company halls and illuminated by hundreds of Christmas trees. Whether the party took place in the public market where actual homeless showed up in droves for beer and oysters or in his projects, it was always boisterous, had plenty of food and much to drink, Struever mingling with the masses, cheering and toasting with his booming voice. Those who provided services to SBE&R sometimes wished for fewer parties and better fees when they were confronted with a much less generous company that expected fees to be rock bottom and wasn't always known for prompt payment.
American Brewery: Not just the waterfront

When Struever climbs behind a podium his bigger vision emerges. He is and always has been a Baltimore booster, full of optimism for his adopted home-town, pronouncing it like a local, "Bawlmer". A somewhat reluctant speaker,  he brims with ideas and infectious energy to this day, his value system heavily gleaned from one of the grand old men he admires, the late developer Jim Rouse. "What ought to be, will be if we want to make it so" was one of Struever's standard references to Rouse, so was his "doing well by doing good". Now 65 and asked about retirement, he refers to Baltimore icon and wise man Walter Sondheim who died at the age of 98 without ever fully retiring, with a workplace at the GBC offices to the end. "I feel blessed in that I love what I do. I’m having way too much fun to even think about retiring" Struever said in a recent statement.

Indeed, when Struever picked the Jones Falls Valley for a mill restoration for arts and crafts completed in 1986, Tindeco as a cannery turned waterfront apartments, the burnt out Clipper Mill for an entirely new mixed use community, or the soap company in Locust Point to be an innovation hub as part of his vision of a "digital harbor", he never picked a glitzy spot for his projects but always an area where hardly anybody else but him saw "potential".  That is easy to forget today since all of these areas are humming now. There is probably no dispute that his projects generated gentrification or, at least contributed, to the sea-change in communities like Woodberry or Canton.
Touring the Hoen Building (SUN photo)

Today, in his second incarnation, first as development consultant and increasingly also, again, as a development partner, his projects are once again in areas where others fear to tread: Deep in black butterfly territory, literally"on the wrong side of the railroad tracks", as in the case of the Hoen Lithograph building converted to be a hub for social entrepreneurs. It sits on the other side of the Amtrak tracks which delineate the EBDI redevelopment area. On the west of downtown, in the other "wing of the butterfly", Struever is involved in the redevelopment of Lion Bros. industrial building at Hollins Street.

So does his long legacy make him a savior or a villain?

There is no doubt that he played a large role in making Baltimore a leader in creative adaptive re-use projects which were quite hard to realize without innovative ideas and the willingness to take a risk. There is absolutely no guarantee that without him somebody else would have come along and developed the American Brewery atop Baltimore's most disinvested neighborhood; Or that Clipper Mill would have become such a vibrant hub. It took somebody with his brashness, can-do attitude and bigger picture thinking to get these projects done. For success he had to cultivate an entire culture of preservation, re-use and nourish the skill sets that are needed to do these difficult conversions. Projects he did didn't start out to be popular among architects, contractors or financiers, because they were much harder than the prevailing sprawl projects on former cornfields. Of course, today urban mixed use seems to be almost the prevailing project type and has become so popular that even new construction mimics old factory buildings. Of course, Struever didn't invent the industrial chic as a style, he didn't invent urban mixed use either, that was done before him in SoHo and the docks of London. But he convinced a often timid Baltimore that this can be done here.
Canton Cove and Tindeco in Canton

Ironically all his initial large projects happened in predominantly white working class neighborhoods, an observation that can be held for or against him, depending on whether one thinks his projects were fundamentally desirable or not. For Struever, the projects were always about building a better city and celebrating urban life.

He wouldn't deny the enormous disparities in Baltimore. In fact, he has pivoted for some time to the black neighborhoods. Still, just like his mentor Jim Rouse couldn't save Sandtown, Struever could not prevent Baltimore's continued shrinkage, no matter how cool and hip his projects were or how some of the uses squarely serve the surrounding communities (A social services non-profit in American Brewery, for example). But without the SBE&R projects Baltimore may have joined the list of top 10 distressed cities in the nation. As it is now, it isn't on the list.

No developer, socially conscious or not, can be a savior and solve the complex web of issues through development. Today the most enlightened developers conceive even more complicated deals in collaboration with the community in which a slew of projects act in tandem as in the case of Seawall in Remington or TRF in Oliver, but those measures, too must be part of an even bigger picture.
Lion Bros. Building Hollins Street

If Struever plans to keep going for another 30 years, he has to continue to adjust and learn as developers must to avoid being washed away by social and technological change. Struever isn't any longer using Schaefer era slogans, he ditched the "digital harbor" talk after the dotcom bubble burst, and he is no longer simply touting urban living to attract millennials. He may look old fashioned to techies, eschewing social media and barely maintaining a proper website for his new company Cross Street Partners, earlier than many leaders and stakeholders, Struever realized that Baltimore won't thrive without equity, and many projects show that he understands this well.
To build a stronger tech scene, you need to build a better city.(Bill Struever, 2013 
Having worked with Struever from when I came here in 1986 (although not in recent years) and being in his age cohort, I am not a neutral observer, by any stretch. I think, though, that he not only fully deserves this ULI award but that he is on his way of becoming a Baltimore legend just like his mentors Rouse and Sondheim. Not one to put on a pedestal as a hero, Mobtown's legends are hardly ever that pure, but a legend without whom Baltimore cannot be understood.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore Business Journal: At 65, Struever now working behind the scenes
Citybizlist: Bill Struever named lifetime achievement award winner by ULI
The Hoen Lithograph Building

also on this blog:
Bill Struever re-emerges

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