Monday, February 5, 2018

David Hillman's legacy

David Hillman was never my client, I met him only a few times in person and I even missed the news of his death when I traveled in India. Yet, when I learned about his passing belatedly when discussing development in College Park with Ken Ulman I was saddened and touched because Hillman had made in impression on me. I saw him as an immutable part of the Baltimore development landscape. Here is why.
Hillman in front of the historic BGE Headquarters he converted into
apartments (Photo: BBJ)

Of course, his biggest imprint as a developer may well be the brandnew hotel in College Park, an investment that exemplifies how Hillman was investing in areas where it wasn't yet fool-proof to do so. His empire is vast: The Vienna based firm manages 25,000 apartments in 78 locations, 1.5 million square feet of commercial space and three hotels.

His willingness to go where others fear to tread is what impressed me about him back in the 1990's when he came to Baltimore to rehabilitate an apartment building on Center Street (Gallery Tower) at a time when housing investments in the downtown area were not popular at all and Baltimore suffered from of those reoccurring bouts of self-doubt which he initially couldn't understand. He continued with Park Charles and the Charles Towers, maybe it was the other way round, large investments when there was at least as much hemming and hoeing going on about Baltimore's future as there is now.  Hillman asked at the time what was wrong with the people of Baltimore that they had so little confidence. It looked to me then that it took a clear-eyed outsider to see the city's obvious upsides and make a go of it.

Unfortunately, the story didn't end there. Hillman, always outspoken and direct, became one of the leaders of the redevelopment of downtown as a residential neighborhood. With 2000 apartments in downtown he learned soon enough that dealing with Baltimore City was, indeed, not as easy as he initially thought. He did a beautiful renovation of the Standard Building on St Paul Street and a successful conversion of the old Hechts department store on Lexington and Howard. With the latter he had landed in Baltimore's old shopping district and in the complicated morass that the so called "Westside" became through a whole slew of factors. Hillman, who prided himself of not needing government for his projects, did use historic tax credits and became especially dependent on city policies with his last two projects which he considered as down-payments on an inevitable revitalization.
The Standard (Oil) Building in Baltimore (Southern Management)

Except, in Baltimore things weren't set up so that focused government action led to a straight path of inevitable success. In spite of Hillman's large projects, and in spite of the government led catalytic project of CenterPoint as well as the successful opening of the Hippodrome, the Westside continued to limp along, greatly handicapped by the failure of getting the Superblock going and by risk-averse hedging of his development colleagues from the Weinberg Foundation and the overall lack of a compelling narrative what the new Westside should be.

Hillman grew frustrated with Baltimore's mayors and planners and certainly let them know. Normally not seeking the limelight, he went on the Marc Steiner show with me and a few others in 2006 to discuss Baltimore's development pitfalls and wrote an open letter to then Mayor Rawlings Blake in 2012 "to express [his] extreme dismay and shock" about how the City handled the Superblock and its selected developer. The same year he told the SUN that his apartment buildings are successful in terms of occupancy but that some don't yield enough rent to make money. He maintained that he loses about $2 million a year on the former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. headquarters alone, pointing out that the building was assessed higher by the City than its worth, resulting in extra high taxes. Hillman was turned down by the City Design Review Panel UDARP when he tried to build a automated garage on Saratoga Street due to concerns about clashes with adjacent historic structures. Eventually he turned his attention to College Park. Ken Ulman, who advises the University of Maryland on development in College Park, describes Hillman's role there in a statement to me this way:
"David had a deep conviction for building community -- looking beyond brick and mortar to help transform neighborhoods from Baltimore to College Park, and everywhere in between. I was fortunate to get to know him while serving as Howard County Executive, but truly saw his labor of love materialize in the form of The Hotel at UMD. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for having confidence in College Park and for jump starting progress beyond the campus borders."
The $180 million College Park Hotel
Hillman didn't fit the developer cliche of the glib guy out for a quick buck. He appeared to be a modest straight shooter who took risks for long-term improvements of the communities he invested in. He didn't only build the adaptive reuse projects, he also stayed on to manage them, something one can only do successfully if quality construction has been a goal and not quick profit. He didn't start his projects as a "do-gooder" but as someone who liked the risk of the "the deal" and the art of thinking in long-term strategies. In that he was "old school" and socially conscious at the same time. That he lost his initial bullishness on Baltimore over time says more about this city than about him.

Hillman knew not only how to shoot back but also how to give back. He founded an entrepreneurship scholarship program which has this quote from him on their website:
To me, an entrepreneur is a person who thinks out-of-the-box, questions the status quo, and tries to find new and better ways to do things. We want to give people confidence to fail, to try, to walk differently than anybody else. People will be successful if they set high goals and aim to achieve them. It will make the world a better place. (David Hillman). 
Hillman died of cancer in late December. His company Southern Management has been led by his second wife, Suzanne Hillman since December 5, 2017.

Klaus Philipen, FAIA

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