The curbs of would-be streets are winding through construction-site mud just outside the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County. And stark gray concrete outlines of modest buildings have replaced the saddle-shaped Capital Centre arena that stood as a monument to graceless utility for nearly three decades before it was imploded last fall.
In its place, and scheduled for a Nov. 15 opening, will be the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, a collection of 50 national and regional retailers and restaurants. The $82 million enclave could prove to be a particularly welcome addition for Prince George's. Nearby Landover Mall fell on hard times and now only has a Sears, Roebuck store remaining and the biggest shopping center in the county, Bowie Town Center, is a bit distant from some county population centers.
The Boulevard development marks the entry into the Washington area of Cordish Co., a 35-year-old Baltimore development firm that specializes in creating entertainment districts out of woebegone urban tracts that other developers have passed by. The prime example of that is Cordish's signature Power Plant development near the Baltimore Inner Harbor. There, an ESPN Zone restaurant and a Barnes & Noble bookstore draw sports fans and waterfront strollers to a century-old power generation station that had been a vacant hulk for 10 years.
That is also where David S. Cordish, 63, the company's founder and chief executive, presides, in his headquarters office on the sixth floor surrounded by three cleansed, one-time smokestacks.
Cordish has built his share of cookie-cutter strip malls. The Boulevard is neither a restoration of an old building -- the type of entertainment complex on which he has built his reputation -- nor is it a typical suburban mall. He has personally guaranteed the financing for the project. "That's what the bank wanted," he said in an interview.
It is also developments like the Boulevard that give Cordish the most satisfaction, if not the biggest profit. He thrives on building a project where others will not venture, providing something that is significant for a community. "If you put up another shopping center, you can't drive by and say, 'Boy, do I feel good about this,' " Cordish said.
Boon to Prince George's
Cordish decided against incorporating the aging Capital Centre into the Boulevard development, although that option was considered at length. The Capital Centre was destroyed last December in favor of a completely new complex.
Blake Cordish, a son of the founder and one of nine partners in the privately held firm that is "a little more than half" owned by David Cordish, has already secured leases with several major retailers. Among them are Borders bookstore, Pier 1 Imports, Linens 'n Things, Starbucks, Pizzeria Uno, Chick-fil-A, Yankee Candle Co., Lane Bryant, Men's Warehouse and Foot Locker. In addition, he said the firm has deals with a variety of restaurants and specialty shops, such as Nick & Tony's, an Italian steak house voted "best new restaurant" in Chicago by Chicago Magazine; Red Star Tavern, a Midwest chain; Harold Penner, a men's casual clothier, and Sweet Tooth Cakes and Pastries, a dessert caterer opening its first cafe.
Cordish's relationship with these retailers is key to his success. Many have rented space in other new Cordish developments, confident that the company's entertainment-style retail formula can create consumer demand for shopping in areas bereft of retail.
While many chains operate elsewhere in the Washington area, they are in short supply in Prince George's.
"This will be a very significant economic project for Prince George's County," said County Councilman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville). The project is in his district. "It will bring quality restaurants and boutiques to an area that has been under-served."
From his vantage, Cordish added, "We're building a very upscale lifestyle development," one where he plans to keep streets open to car traffic but also be able to close them through use of retractable bollards so that occasionally pedestrians and special events can take over a street. He said one prototype for the development is the Reston Town Center, where there are similar street-side retail and restaurant outlets rather than mall-type shopping.
In all, he said 500,000 square feet of retail space, nine restaurants and a 14-screen, stadium-style movie theater partly financed by former basketball star Magic Johnson will be built at Boulevard. Office buildings were also originally planned at the project, and Cordish said that he would still like to include some office space. But he said those plans are now on hold because Metro is constructing an above-ground subway stop at the site on land where Cordish had hoped to build the offices.
"We're 90 percent leased [for the retail space] still four months from completion," Cordish said. He said his firm has about a 40 percent stake in a joint venture to develop the Capital Centre site, with the remainder being held by Washington Sports & Entertainment, the corporate entity for Abe Pollin's majority ownership of the Wizards basketball team and MCI Center.
Cordish said his firm is the managing partner of the Boulevard project. Under terms of the development plans, Cordish and Washington Sports will own the buildings at the site and will keep the rental income from the tenants. Prince George's County owns the land and leases it to Capital Centre LLC, the joint venture formed by Cordish and Washington Sports, for $150,000 a year during a 70-year contract.
Cordish said that under its deal with Washington Sports, Cordish is 100 percent responsible for financing the construction since Washington Sports provided access to the land lease, which it already had because of its ownership of Capital Centre. Prince George's did not put up any cash in the deal, Cordish said, just the land for a cheap long-term lease. The deal is similar to the firm's Power Plant development; it leased the building from Baltimore for $1,000 a year for the first 10 years of operation, but is obligated to pay the city 22 percent of its net operating profit after that.
Other municipalities have fronted Cordish cash or spent money on improvements, so he would do development deals in their towns, such as Houston ($8 million to redevelop an old convention center), Charleston ($14 million to revamp a downtown retail district) and Richmond ($4.6 million for a new retail-residential development). The money goes to help Cordish defray his construction costs, but the company does no "fee-for-development" work. It takes equity stakes in all its projects and owns most if not all the potential upside in the value of a project.
Blake Cordish, 32, a vice president of the firm along with his brothers, Jonathan, 35, and Reed, 29, said the firm projects that once opened, Boulevard will yield $124 million in real estate, admission, sales and payroll taxes to Prince George's and the state of Maryland over a 10-year period.
Still, his father, sitting in his Power Plant office overlooking the Baltimore harbor as a violent thunderstorm ripped through the city, said he felt that "several million in revenue [for Prince George's] is not in my opinion the main benefit" for the county. "This will give them a sense of place, to go shopping, to go to a movie. It will keep their citizens at home. They won't have to go to Fairfax or Montgomery. It's an amenity.
"That's what drove the Curry administration, more than the few million they'll get in revenue," Cordish said of former Prince George's county executive Wayne K. Curry, who oversaw efforts to develop the site after the sports teams' use of the Capital Centre ended, leaving behind a lonely cavern of steel.
Improving the urban landscape, transforming forgotten places into new, crowd-attracting venues has turned the Cordish Co. into a popular stop for public officials, particularly those who find their downtowns desolate sectors that their residents and visitors alike shun.
"There is barely a week that goes by when we're not visited by a governor, a mayor or a head of economic development who's looking to get us to come to their place to make something happen," said the elder Cordish, a slightly built man with thinning, curly gray hair.
And why do they come?
"Because we do what we say we're going to do," Cordish said conclusively. "We're creative. We don't have any competition" in creating entertainment districts.
"The reason they seek us out is because we have the patience" to work out complicated public-private financing deals. He said that few other developers would put up with what he calls "the brain damage" of dealing with elected officials who often put up taxpayer money or land to help Cordish's investments succeed. He said his firm often negotiates complicated 80-page pacts in which municipalities turn over decrepit properties they own or fund infrastructure improvements near the planned developments in exchange for Cordish's agreement to construct urban districts filled with nightclubs, stores and restaurants, much like the Power Plant attraction and the nearby Power Plant Live! restaurant, bar and office enclave in Baltimore.
"When you're going into buildings that have failed," Cordish said, "you have to do something dramatic, get people's attention."
Hampton, Va., Mayor Mamie Locke said her city is putting up at least $12 million in a Cordish deal, one she described as "fairly controversial" because of the difficult and time-consuming effort to assemble parcels of land for the Power Plant of Hampton Roads retail and restaurant project. She said Cordish was "very tough in terms of negotiations. We've gone back and forth many times."
Still, she concluded, "They could have walked away from this project any number of times because of the land assembly. They made a commitment to be here in Hampton and, despite all the delays, they're here."
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which has represented the city government in negotiations with Cordish, and municipal officials elsewhere said the firm drives a hard bargain in negotiating terms of its construction deals.
Yet, Brodie said, "They're willing to take on tough projects and make a go of it. I've seen them produce at the end of the day," something that he said is not true of all developers.
Cordish said the firm has 10 projects under construction this year worth $1.2 billion, ranging from the ordinary -- a parking garage and an office building in Baltimore -- to two casino-hotel-retail projects in Florida; the office, retail and residential project in Richmond; the shopping and restaurant complex in Hampton; and a major non-gambling, retail and entertainment district in Atlantic City. Cordish said the firm owns about 55 projects nationwide and currently has 2,000 active leases under its control.
Cordish declined to reveal any specific financial information because the firm is private. "We're profitable, with very strong financials," he said. He added the firm earns a 22 percent return on its equity share in investments in strictly private ventures, which he thinks is perhaps higher than that for developers of similar projects because of Cordish's selectivity in doing them, and 11 or 12 percent on ones it has done with some kind of public entity.
Cordish said the different rates of returns are simply a function of the fact that "public-private deals are more difficult. There's more time invested. These deals are just not happening on their own" through free-enterprise investment.
Cordish Co. has 100 employees, all of whom get bonuses determined by how well Cordish thinks they worked in the past year. "We have a very good time here, but we work hard," he said.
Some of the good times come on the basketball court at his Baltimore home, where he joins spirited games among the more athletic members of his staff, several of whom competed in intercollegiate sports. That, as it turns out, is a particularly favored trait for hiring by Cordish, who played on a national champion lacrosse team at Johns Hopkins in 1959.
Cordish said he measures success by the completion of a project and whether it is 100 percent leased. And he points to the judgment of his developer peers: The Urban Land Institute, the big developers' trade group, has given him five Award for Excellence trophies he displays in the Cordish offices.
As Cordish says, that keeps the public officials streaming to his door, people like Calvin D. Jamison, the city manager in Richmond, where Cordish and a local partner, Daniel Corp., have embarked on a two-year project to create Riverside on the James, a mix of offices, upscale apartments and stores.
"We developed a real good comfort with David and his family," Jamison said of the Cordishes. "There are some companies who take a job strictly for the bottom line, and obviously [Cordish] is in business to make money. But the reason he takes on projects is seeing an end product as something he can be proud of."
Andi Udris, president of the Kansas City Economic Development Corp., which is negotiating a deal to have Cordish develop a site in the Missouri city, said Cordish is successful because of "his ability to begin a project and finish it. He prides himself on that. Many developers can show you glossy prints of some project and 10 years later nothing's happened."