The Idea Man: Creditor says city rehabber is long on vision, short on cash

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 22, 2003

Last September, developer Charles Jeffries was on the cusp of winning historic-district designation for a large swath of East Baltimore (“Prophet or Loss?,” Sept. 25, 2002). He won, so nearly 5,000 structures in the newly dubbed Broadway East/South Clifton Park Historic District are now eligible for tax credits. The new district includes Perlman Place, Jeffries’ long-stalled housing-rehab project that landed him and his company on the losing end of a court judgment in 1999 for bilking three working-class women in a housing scheme. Jeffries hopes the designation will spur a critical mass of investment in the declining neighborhoods and is hard at work attracting new players to this long-decaying part of the town.

The effort, though, has left Jeffries on the wrong end of another lawsuit–this one from Goodwin and Associates of Frederick, the cultural-resources management firm that prepared Jeffries’ historic-district application at a cost of $47,000 but has yet to receive payment.

“He called me literally daily in December to give some reason or another why he hadn’t paid,” recalled the firm’s president, Chris Goodwin, in a recent telephone interview. Then, Goodwin says, “he pulled a disappearing act and dropped off the face of the earth.” When Goodwin couldn’t get a return phone call from Jeffries, and then couldn’t locate him at the Cathedral Street address on record with the state as the principal office of Jeffries’ Center Development Corp., he says he “smelled a rat” and asked his attorney to draft and file the lawsuit. On Jan. 18, Goodwin says, Jeffries was served the lawsuit at his house in Guilford.

Interviewed by phone on Jan. 16 (before being served the papers), Jeffries said he was unaware of the lawsuit and was not trying to avoid payment or evade service–behavior that was noted of Jeffries during the Perlman Place litigation. “I have lines of credit with all sorts of people who pay bills,” he explains, and this one “should have been paid. I think you are trying to paint some picture that I don’t pay my bills. I have never walked away from a debt that I owed, ever.”

Though Goodwin is pursuing payment from Jeffries, he remains a fan of the developer’s core idea: to redevelop long-abandoned urban tracts. “If you look at East Baltimore, the decay is palpable,” he muses. “And, God, what a housing stock–if it only could be brought back. The potential is huge; Charles Jeffries is right about that. But it requires capital, and I’m skeptical he has what it takes.”

Since winning designation for the new historic district, Jeffries has continued to be active on several development fronts. In November, he and several partners, including the Baltimore Cable Access Corp., the Arena Players, and Baltimore developer Jerry Lymas, announced their vision for the Media Arts Network School. The planned $450 million development would create a campus, a theater, and student housing in an area that now contains scores of blocks (including Perlman Place) that resemble post-war Dresden. Jeffries says his company is also “literally on the verge of starting” renovation of the long-abandoned, 115-year-old Lake Clifton gatehouse, a dilapidated city structure where he hopes to house Center Development Corp.’s offices.

Also in the works is what Jeffries calls a “complicated transaction” to transfer ownership of Mount Vernon’s historic Winans mansion from Agora Publishing to an anonymous donor represented by Jeffries, and finally into the hands of the University of Baltimore. The long-pending deal was first announced nearly a year ago. Bill Lynerd, UB’s vice president of university advancement, says that, “at least according to Charles, we are going to nail this thing very shortly.”

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