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Prophet or Loss?

Controversial Developer Pushes ambitious East Baltimore Real Estate Proposal

By Van Smith | Posted 9/25/2002

Real-estate developer Charles Jeffries Jr.'s decade of working in Baltimore has been marred by turmoil. His million-dollar housing raffle was canceled amid a state probe in 1994, and he was pinned with a $350,000 court judgment in 1999 for bilking three low-income women who bought into Perlman Place, his stalled East Baltimore rowhouse renovation project, his only redevelopment venture to date ("The Shell Game," City Paper, June 9, 1999). So far, his heavily hyped promises for rejuvenating old rowhouse properties have produced little more than high-profile missteps.

But Jeffries, a 36-year-old Chicagoan who came to Baltimore after getting his MBA from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, is up to his ears in ambitious new plans for aged East Baltimore real estate. It won't be long, he predicts, before people finally come to see him not as a flimflam artist but as a visionary--someone who helps create success in long-abandoned tracts of nearly unsalvageable housing stock, where naysayers could foresee only continued failure. As his recent activities attest, Jeffries is a man on a mission.

Jeffries' proposal to turn 110 city blocks into the Broadway East/South Clifton Park Historic District, thereby making the owners of 4,866 structures eligible for state and federal tax credits, will be reviewed at hearings of city and state officials (on Oct. 8 and Oct. 1, respectively). On Sept. 23, Perlman Place--a single block of East Baltimore rowhouses, just north of North Avenue between Patterson Park and Collington avenues--won designation as a city historic district, so local tax credits are now available for Jeffries' slow-moving project there. In August, the city gave Jeffries a lease for Clifton Park's 115-year-old Lake Clifton Gatehouse, where he plans to house his latest company, Center Development Corp. And in February, Jeffries emerged as the anonymous "donor's representative" in a complicated and as-yet-incomplete transaction to put Mount Vernon's historic Winans mansion, now owned by Agora Publishing, into the hands of the University of Baltimore.

Despite the court record, Jeffries denies any guilt whatsoever about the problems at Perlman Place and talks excitedly about his imminent success. While visiting the gatehouse recently, he seethed with indignation over the treatment he has received at the hands of lawyers and reporters. The lawsuit, he claimed, was "extortion" and the press coverage "the worst kind of muckraking." In the next moment, he delivered one of his fervent, staccato speeches about the promise of "making neighborhoods come alive" and the "extraordinary opportunities" East Baltimore's dejected neighborhoods will attract. "All the bad press that's happened," he mused before declining to allow a photographer to take a picture of him, "and I'm still here."

If his vision is realized, Jeffries says, whole sections of East Baltimore, long abandoned except by escalating violence, will experience "snowballing" private investment totaling $450 million by allowing property owners to exploit tax credits available for historic properties. This push will feed off of the momentum created by the coming expansion of the Johns Hopkins medical complex--"only a mile away from Perlman Place," he points out. The "full schematic design" of his plan will be the subject of an upcoming press release, which will unveil all the pertinent details. In the meantime, he looks forward to being a beneficiary of such a boon, along with many others who support his plan--not just himself and the seven unnamed partners he says are in on the effort, but everyone who is smart enough to recognize the investment potential of East Baltimore rowhouses.

"We're very excited," Jeffries enthuses on the phone two days later. "I'm happy to be in the company of these great and well-known parties," who he says will be joining Center Development in the "extraordinary effort." The company, which in August changed its bylaws to allow the sale of stock, now has "a lot of investors," he says. "We're a lot bigger than we were a few months ago."

Meanwhile, the Jeffries company behind the housing raffle and Perlman Place, the Center for Affordable Housing, was declared forfeit by the state in 2000 for failure to file a property-tax return, and it still owes Walbrook Mill and Lumber a total of $8,091.67, according to district-court records. Jeffries dismisses such judgments as trivial, pointing out that legal baggage is common among reputable investors, "but Charles Jeffries is the Antichrist" even though he's bringing hope to "vacant properties and burnt-out neighborhoods."

Perlman Place has been host to little but violence over at least the last decade. Two murder suspects have been arrested there: nun-strangler Melvin Jones in 1993 and Cherry Hill's Ulysses Shawn "Sleepy" Daniels in 1997. In 1998, Donte Antonio Kennedy of Perlman Place was wanted for attempted murder. And in 2001, resident Morris Graham was murdered on Greenmount Avenue.

These tragedies unfolded amid buildings that tell repeated stories of failure sold to investors as opportunity. Owners of Perlman Place properties have included:

· Amerifirst Mortgage Corp., a New York-based brokerage that lost its Federal Housing Authority lending privileges for three years beginning in late 2000, when the federal Mortgagee Review Board also fined it $100,000 for unscrupulous lending practices. This, after Amerifirst in the late 1990s teamed up with the Baltimore Urban League, the United Minority Contractors Association, and the Circle of Friends of American Veterans in schemes ostensibly designed to create low-income homeownership opportunities.

· Wayne Phillips, a jazz drummer who reportedly relocated to Arizona in the 1980s after his notorious inner-city investment practices caught up with him--but not before he became a nationally televised real-estate and government-giveaway promoter who drove around town in a Rolls Royce with the license plate wealth.

· Former Gov. Marvin Mandel crony Norris Ashe, who made a fortune in the 1980s teaching the throngs who attended his real-estate seminars how to make a killing off cheap urban housing.

· James "King" Corcoran, a former University of Maryland and NFL football player made famous in the 1960s when he quarterbacked a Maryland victory over the Naval Academy squad led by future NFL great Roger Staubach. In 1992, he faced charges in Montgomery County for taking investors' deposits for sales of Baltimore rowhouses he didn't own.

Corcoran did own 1903 Perlman Place, though, which he sold for a dollar in 1998 to Jeffries' Center for Affordable Housing, which resold it the same day for $38,000 to the current resident, Robert Willie. Willie says he's happy with his home--two rowhouses folded into one, with a small rooftop deck. He adds that he is even happier with it now that the City Council has given Perlman Place local historic-district status.

Perlman Place's history begs the question: Is Jeffries' engineering yet another public-incentive-driven housing scheme that, like the earlier ones, will produce little more than new puzzles for title searchers? Jeffries says no--the previous horror stories were investor-driven, he points out, but his ideas are based on creating homeownership rather than absentee landlords.

"His intent is good," city Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young (D-2nd District) says of Jeffries, but adds that he is "slick" in selling ambitious ideas. Young supported the Perlman Place historic designation but is "concerned over how long it has stalled." He is less comfortable with Jeffries' larger plans--"he's in over his head," the councilman says--and says he won't support any more projects until Perlman Place is completed "and he can prove that he can do this."

The University of Baltimore's vice president for university advancement, Bill Lynerd, who is familiar with Jeffries' pending Winans mansion transaction, says he is aware of Jeffries' troubled track record but finds him "very earnest and sincere. And so far, we have no reason to doubt the validity of the project or his sincerity." Especially, adds Lynerd, because there are "a lot of parties involved in this, very reputable partners" whose names he is not free to disclose. The deal, he explains, "involves historic-tax credits through a donor-advised fund," and if it passes "due diligence" and goes forward the donor will never be known.

When told of Jeffries' involvement in the Winans mansion deal, Richard Gordon, attorney for the Perlman Place plaintiffs, made two quick points. First, he wondered how thorough UB's due-diligence effort could be since "they haven't contacted me" about the high-dollar judgment that arose from Jeffries' only project. Then, suggesting a pattern, Gordon asserted that Jeffries "had an anonymous donor for Perlman Place properties that never materialized."

Jeffries will say nothing more about his involvement in the Winans mansion negotiations, but he freely waxes poetic about the future of Baltimore. "This is new," he says of the urban real-estate landscape. "Baltimore's in a renaissance, and all the boundaries are breaking down, changing peoples' perspectives on where to live and go." Why his endless promotion of the investment value of derelict rowhouses? "To change the world," Jeffries blurts through the phone with palpable zeal. Then, downshifting from the grandiose, he claims to be "just a small piece of the very big pie of what's happening in East Baltimore. I'm happy to be a part of it."

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