As the only child of the late Otis Warren Jr., the first Black commercial developer in Baltimore, Otis “OT” Warren III always had it in the back of his mind that he was going to carry on the legacy of the family business.
The Otis Warren Group, which specializes in development and property management, became widely known after Warren Jr. constructed an 11-story office building downtown during a time when the real estate profession shut out people of color. He went on to train hundreds of Black agents locally.
Warren Jr. died on Jan. 10, and his son said he will continue to build his family’s business.
“As I was growing up, my dad would say things like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until you help me out,’ but he never really pressured me into doing it. It’s kind of something that I fell into on my own,” Warren III said. “And through reading books and things, I realized you’re gonna have to work hard regardless. So you might as well work on something that’s already been established.”
Warren III, who now serves as president and CEO, said his father positioned him and the company well for a smooth transition.
Otis Warren Sr. got the family involved in real estate as a West Baltimore landlord and also purchased properties in the 1950s where Black people were allowed. But the elder Warren was rejected from the city’s realtors organization, according to a Baltimore Sun profile. By 1976, though, the group had named his son Realtor of the Year.
“They both [Otis Warren Sr. and Otis Warren Jr.] worked really hard in their careers, and I don’t take that for granted. Their legacies have established what I am apart of today,” Warren III said.
He made his entrée into property management after his father developed Dickey Hill Forest Apartments in 1986. He would complete odd jobs such as cutting and watering the grass, and as he got older, he would work in the office during his school breaks.
Warren Jr. paid $500,000 in 1989 for a lot at Howard and Baltimore streets. There, he built the 11-story, 250,000-square-foot City Crescent building, becoming the first Black person to develop an office building in Baltimore’s downtown.
“You know, I was 10 years old when he developed Dickey Hill Forest Apartments and I was in high school when he when he developed City Crescent. And knowing what I know now, development is extremely complex, and it’s impressive to me that he was able to accomplish what he did as a Black and dyslexic male from Baltimore City,” Warren III said.
“And when he was trying to develop City Crescent, he got denied probably 100 times for a loan, but he kept fighting and kept finding another way to get that deal financed,” he added.
Eddie Brown, the founder of Brown Capital Management, said he remembered seeing the deal appear on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, but what Warren Jr. told him was just “unbelievable.”
“He said he had General Services, a U.S. government tenant, for the commercial space in the building, with a 10- or 15-year lease. And he had trouble getting financing from a local bank. It was a big deal and it’s still a lot of money today, I guess,” Brown said. “But I said, ‘You had a U.S. government AAA tenant, and you couldn’t get financing?’ ‘No.’”
Then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke, the first African American person elected to that office, negotiated a deal for the city to assume the lease if the federal government chose not to renew its agreement after 10 years, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun.
”And he still had trouble getting a loan,” Brown recalled. “That just showed how much difficulty African Americans had doing a major real estate project.”
The Maryland Industrial Development Financing Authority eventually agreed to issue the bonds to finance the project. The $38 million building opened in 1993.
Warren Jr. and business partner Theo Rodgers secured a lease from the federal General Services Administration through 2018, according to a 2020 report in the Baltimore Business Journal. They sold the building in 2007.
A Virginia developer bought the property at a foreclosure auction in 2020 with plans to convert the building into nearly 400 apartment units, according to the Baltimore Business Journal article.
Following the success of City Crescent, Warren Jr.’s company went on to build the University View, a 12-story mixed-use development near the University of Maryland, College Park, as well as the apartment tower at 929 North Wolfe St. near the Johns Hopkins Hospital. It also owns townhomes in West Baltimore and Woodlawn, according to the company website.
Brown said he was so proud of what his friend was able to accomplish. And as people would come and work for his company and sought housing, he would often refer them to Warren’s company for listings.
“There was kind of mutual admiration, and referrals, where it made sense. And he would do likewise, if he knew of someone that was looking for an investment manager. We helped each other across our respective businesses. ... And naturally, we participated as great friends for about 50 years,” Brown said.
Howard Henderson, the former president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, also credits Otis Warren Jr. with helping the national NAACP headquarters relocate to the city.
In 1985, when the two first met, Henderson was serving as the chief financial officer for the national office of the civil rights group as it was in the process of moving from New York City to Baltimore.
“He was very helpful in assisting me and navigating Baltimore,” Henderson said. “It was good to have someone who was local, who understood the terrain, the politics, the people, and how to do business in Baltimore. I engaged his services in terms of providing real estate relocation services for all the staff that we were moving to Baltimore at that time and we had been friends ever since.”
Henderson spoke with Otis Warren Jr. a few days before he died.
“The last time, we spoke we talked about about the future. We didn’t talk about the next phase of his life. We talked about how once he pulled through this, we’d be going out to some more games, but he and I both know the time was short,” he said. “We knew he was in hospice. So we just talked about the future and I told him would be staying in touch with OT — keeping an eye on him.”
“But OT is a good one to carry on his legacy. He’s definitely a chip off the old block,” he added.
Warren III said services are on Feb. 4 at 10 a.m. at the March Life Tribute Center in Randallstown.