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An Interview With: Anthony Lanier

Washington DC
An Interview With: Anthony Lanier

An Interview With: Anthony Lanier

Lanier, 53, is one of the leading real estate developers in Georgetown, best known for creating the Georgetown Ritz and Lowe’s Cineplex, and Cady’s Alley at 33rd and M Streets. He has also developed other buildings in Washington, such as the downtown Ritz on 22nd Street and much of the new WilmerHale complex on Pennslyvania Avenue and 18th. He has worked with German investors to purchase over a billion dollars of buildings in the city.

Bisnow: What is your philosophy in choosing and executing projects?
Our business is about good life. We are not real estate developers. We’re not developing warehouses, because they have nothing to do with lifestyle. But creating great residential makes people happy when they go to bed. And creating great stores makes you happy when you spend your money. And creating great restaurants gives you pleasure. Hedonistic pleasure. I want to be known as somebody who developed lifestyle in the city. That’s kind of an overriding feature. Produce good quality and good life.

When and why did you come to Georgetown?
Georgetown was actually the first place I descended on when I came to the US from Europe, around 1980. It has the most European feel to it. I had the opportunity to share a house with a friend while my family was still in Europe. I was involved with a mortgage company in Washington, which had some interesting real estate businesses in Europe. And then when there were difficult times in the beginning of the ‘80s with high interest rates, I started coming back and forth to figure out if we should close down our engagements.

Where was the first place you lived in Georgetown?
I think it was 1064 30th Street.

And where do you live now?
I live on N Street.

And how has Georgetown changed in those 25 years?
I think a lot of ugly office buildings were built south of the canal. Not very attractive buildings. The most dramatic change has been in the last five or seven years. A lot of nice people say that I helped changed Georgetown. But the fact is the city changed with the insertion of the Control Board and the federal government taking a serious look at the city and wondering if they should risk getting shot on the way to their job or fix it. The city started becoming more attractive combined with the trend of many people who want to move back to the city for lifestyle reasons. And in that process I think we started looking at how delightful Georgetown is. My wife actually pushed me into it.

What does your wife do?
Isabel works with me. She designs exotic apartments above stores, gets them built, and keeps them occupied. She does all the things that I am too lazy to do. I met her on the beach in Portugal in 1968.

How did you get involved in the Georgetown Ritz?
It was one day in 1998, on a Friday. There was this incinerator that had been bought and sold and had attempted to be built on and failed to be built on for a period of almost twenty years since I was in Georgetown was about to be awarded to developer. There was an RFP out, and it had to be responded to by Monday. Well, I liked Georgetown, I’d bought a couple of buildings here, so I thought, “Why would I not be bidding on this?” So I found this old submission of one of my friends on the project, and I called up my lawyers and we worked feverishly over the weekend, and we did the submission and put the word “flexibility” in all over the place. And then in the hours before my submission I called up the various people in the city who technically would have been the right people to have as partners, associates, architects, and engineers to make us a competitive team under city standards. And lo and behold, we won it to everybody’s surprise. There was only one other bidder, who until that weekend knew he was the only bidder.

What was your vision at the time? Did you think about using the incinerator as the centerpiece?
Well, first of all, we were not thinking of a Ritz Hotel. And, yes, the incinerator was always the centerpiece of some sort. But there was a time we were thinking we would put up just apartments or condominiums. But unlike now, there was no real condominium market at the time. And then we were thinking of making it restaurants and nightclubs. We had to do a lot of parking. That was one of the requirements at the time. So I can’t say we had a real idea of what we wanted to do. We threw a lot of ideas out and then wrapped them with a paper that said we kept saying we were going to be flexible about it. And when we were awarded the site, we concluded that we would rather build on the whole block rather than on the site.

When did the Ritz enter the picture?
We were at the time planning a Ritz on the west end of 22nd Street, and my partners in the meantime had run off and started doing projects with the Ritz, thinking about projects with the Ritz in Boston, and New York, and all over the place. So the logical conclusion was that this idea about the Ritz and residences made a lot of sense, since Ritz was our hotel partner elsewhere. But the Ritz was not really committed to this idea because it would be a smaller, 90-room hotel, and we wanted a different design than was typical for them. And we were thinking: we can’t believe somebody like the Ritz wouldn’t want to manage this hotel. Now that it’s been done, it’s amazing. It defies logic but it’s amazing.

Would you do something different today if you had to do it over? Have you learned anything about it?
Yeah, there’s not a building we we’ve built that I wouldn’t do differently. Would it be substantially different? I don’t think so. I think today Georgetown is different than what it was. I think that the idea of putting the movies in was fabulous. I think I would have configured some of our apartments differently. I would have liked to have a swimming pool in there.

Who came up with the movie theatre idea?
That was a trademark of our investment partners, Millennium. They always tried in their towers to lift them as high above the street level as possible. So thirty feet went to the movies right away and made the apartments better than having them at the ground floor. You know, we were a group of people. I’m not sure who came up with the idea. But I think it was all planted in our mind that we wanted to build movies. And here we had a site where logically the movies made a lot of sense. So from the beginning when we were bidding it, there were movies involved in this project, albeit the plan was much smaller than we actually built.

What was your vision for Cady’s Alley?
I started that in 1999, and it came about because I was walking down a street and saw a dejected broker. And I said, what’s happened? He said, “There’s a guy, someone we all know, who just dropped the contract on this building. And it’s just a negotiating ploy. And you know, it’s so painful and I’m fed up with it.” And I said, “Well, how much was the contract?” He says it was such and such an amount. I said, “You know what? I’ll buy it for that. Come over in an hour to my office and I’ll give you a check. It’s non-contingent.” He says, “You will?” I said “Yes, absolutely.” And so I gave him a contract that day. And then we had this big space that’s now Baker Furniture. And I could not figure out what to do with it. It was in the middle of crazy restaurants and so on. Somebody brought me Baker Furniture, and we hit it off. It made me think of the idea of a design center. And Baker liked it. And so I said, if you sign the lease, I’ll buy the block. I’ll buy every building here and we’ll make a design center out of it. And that’s how it came about.

And what do you think of it today?
I think it’s great. It has its difficulties because it’s a new way of looking at things. But I think every day, people like it more and more. I like the spaces, I like who is in there. And I’m sure we’ll see one or the other change over the years. But it’s been a success.

What are you working on now?
We’re working on some expanding in Georgetown. We’re working on recapitalizing our portfolio, which is very important because in order to start something as we have done without subsidies, without any support from anybody, the financial benefits are very slim. And so one of the things we’ve had to do in Georgetown is to keep rotating one capital partner after the other. We want to recast our financial structure so that we can be around for a long long time.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve done in Georgetown recently?
Always the last thing. Opening a restaurant, which we did last May.

How so?
Everybody told me how we were going to fail. With that in mind, I didn’t want to hear anybody say I told you so. While I can’t say we’ve been a screaming success and my restaurant managers drive up in Ferraris, it’s turned out to be a great restaurant. I like it. I like going there every day.

You’re talking about Leopold’s Kafé.
Yeah. And I don’t go there every day because I’m cheap and I only want to spend my money in my own place. It’s because I built something that I really wanted to have. It was my idea of a fantasy, an uncomplicated room with food delivery and pastries.

Did you design it?
It was designed by the wife of the Brazilian ambassador at the time, two years ago. She was an interior designer. I spent a lot of time with them. I liked them. He was arguably one of the most brilliant emissaries to this country I’ve ever met. The periphery, the functionality of doors and windows and so on was designed by a variety of architects who live within walking distance and are also good clients of the restaurant. It’s not supposed to look Brazilian, but it has a Brazilian cherry floor. We wanted to make it minimalistic, contemporary, not a lot of colors, so the occupants provide the color. She picked all the furniture. And some of the furniture is kind of exotic, done by Brazilian designers. Like chairs out of driftwood designed by some of the most respected furniture and chair designers of our time, the Campana Brothers—chairs shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Anything else?
Yes. We brought this Brazilian retailer called Artifacto to Cady’s Alley in October. And I think that’s a refreshing newcomer on the US scene. It sells furniture manufactured out of Brazil. And in doing that I kind of rekindled my relationship with Brazil and the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the big expansion areas. And I thought to myself, well, I’ve covered Russia. I have an affinity for Russia, and I have an affinity for Brazil. So we should look at doing something in Brazil.

Yes. I think it has a very good price points. I’m not saying that they’re cheap. But I think they have very competitive pricing. And more importantly, they deliver right away. It’s not one of those elegant stores that says you can have your furniture in eight weeks, but you can say when you want to have it.

You go to Brazil much?
No, never. But perhaps I should.

You were born there.
Yes, in Rio de Janeiro. But I lived in Europe from the age of five to the age of thirty-something.

What did your parents do?
My father was in the business of equipping steel mills with special equipment. Pinions, rolls, gears, and these things, with US product all over the world.

So that’s why you moved.
Yeah. We moved because my mother is Austrian and thought everything else was inferior to Austria. Perhaps she’s right.

What kind of name is Lanier? Doesn’t sound Brazilian.
No, he was an American from New York, many generations back. The family is distantly related to people like Tennessee Williams and Sidney Lanier, the first American poet. French Huguenots originally.

Who is Cady?
Just a name of someone who lived around there. We did research and thought that would be cute. We added the “alley.”

And while we’re on names, your company is called “Eastbanc.” Where’s that come from?
I was sitting in another office years ago and thought, people like names with directions. And banks sound solid. So we made it up.

What are your favorite spots in Georgetown?
My favorite thing overall is that it’s a village. It has natural boundaries. If I walk on the street through the neighborhood, I can stop on every corner and chat with somebody. If I walk down the street I can actually do some business. One guy is doing signs for me. The other guy is delivering liquor for me. The other guy is a vendor for this or that, you know. I like going into a restaurant where I meet some of those people, so I have the feeling I’m in a neighborhood restaurant. And so we do our business in our village. And so I think that in a nutshell is what I like about it.

What restaurants do you particularly like?
I like Milano in the summer. I like Nathan’s for a cold night or a late drink. I like La Chaumiere for its consistency. I love the Ritz. There’s no better place for a cup of coffee in the morning on a Sunday and reading the newspaper than in the lobby of the Ritz of Georgetown. I like Blues Alley as an extraordinary unique place. I like the Canal, the fact that I can walk out and be nowhere very quickly. And I like the river because I can row on it from from Thomson’s boathouse.

How about outside of Georgetown?
There are very few really exciting restaurants in Washington, but there are a lot of good restaurants. For Italian food I like Goldoni because I have a relationship with them. It was the first site I assembled, and it’s a good Italian restaurant. I like Taberna del Alabardero because I think it’s the premier Spanish restaurant in town and worth a trip. I like the Bombay Club as one of the nicest settings for two people or three people to have a conversation. I like the Hay Adams for esthetics and quality and location. I like very much Montmartre on Capitol Hill, a restaurant not dissimilar to Bistro Lepic. It’s a restaurant I would drive across town for.

What’s your basic ambition at this point?
To make Georgetown rock solid the best place in Washington.

What is Georgetown missing right now if you could wave your magic wand?
Jewelers, shoe stores, more great restaurants. It’s still missing some of everything.

Are you concerned that there is so much activity in the East End and maybe in Anacostia with the baseball stadium? Georgetown used to be the most exciting place in Washington. Now there’s multiple places.
You know it would be stupid to say I’m not concerned about it because everybody is a competitor. Chevy Chase, East End, Anacostia, and others. I think short-term those are the prices you pay for simultaneous growth to get there quicker. I don’t think that Anacostia or downtown is really a competitor to Georgetown. It’s never going to have the cache or the human feel. I think the danger for Georgetown is if we proliferate our retail too much over a large footprint, then it will take a long time for people to realize how beautiful and how valuable Georgetown is. Whereas if we allow Georgetown to succeed in its first phase, a lot of tenants will find that Georgetown was not the right market for them, but the East End would have been. And so we will have Georgetown rise to a level of excellence because it can’t deal with volume. It has to deal with a quality of lifestyle. And we will shift larger space users, volume, entertainment and so on to other areas of the city. And I am involved in redeveloping the area around the stadium in one of the development teams. And I think it’s an exciting alternative to Georgetown in the sense of all the potential with similar nice features that Georgetown has. But in the end everybody’s a competitor, and you have to kind of race against them.

And your philosophy in your own life?
I think the best way to describe it is: I don’t distinguish between business and pleasure. Business is my pleasure, and my pleasure is business. I just have a lot of fun with what I’m doing, and I’m doing things that are intuitively about where I am in this moment in life. So if I feel that I’m not traveling enough, at once I find myself opening offices in other continents. The idea of opening an office in Portugal was simply to spend more time in Europe. Portugal seemed like a good place to do it in. Not because it’s the best market, but because it’s a place I like to go to. And Siberia.

What do you do in Siberia?
We have a software company in Siberia and Washington DC called Eastbanc Tech.

How did you get involved in that?
During the real estate downturn at the end of the ‘90s, I wanted to find something to do other than be here and dream about misery, and was looking for something to do in Europe. So by coincidence I ended up in some technology position with a big German publishing house. And my first meeting in that function was with Andy Grove of Intel. And I walked out of the meeting not understanding anything, except that these were really clever people, unlike us real estate guys. So I had a two-year tech stint and invested with these other guys in early technologies. We were a founding member of Wired and Wired Magazine and we were creating Europe Online in competition with America Online. And then when this unraveled and I sold out of it, I had this money that I gained in technology and my daughter had married a very nice Russian chap and her father-in-law happened to live in Washington DC. And we came up with this idea of creating a technology company. And that’s how we got into it.

And so have you been to Siberia?
Three times to Novosibirsk, the capital.

How do you get there?
Somehow you get to Moscow. And then from Moscow you fly another four hours. It’s almost like a trip from Washington to Los Angeles. You leave Moscow late in the evening and arrive at six o’clock in the morning.
Why would someone who lives and breathes Georgetown and swears by Georgetown want to visit Siberia? It seems like the polar opposite.
True. And I think that’s what makes it exciting. Siberia is an adventure. Adventure and odd circumstances create opportunity, or make you think. Georgetown is a fulfillment. It’s the fulfillment of growing up in a village and understanding the beauty of simplicity. One thing Siberia does is to make me realize how fantastic we live in America and how fantastic I live in Georgetown.

Why do you have a presence in Portugal?
Since I was born in Brazil, I have an affinity for Portugal. And I grew up in Europe and I have a Portuguese wife. I anticipated that this Mediterranean wife would at one time, like all Mediterranean wives, want to spend more time in the Mediterranean. I speak two languages well, Portuguese and German. I would hardly go to Germany, which to me is less desirable than Austria. My wife was not from Austria, so it was Portugal. With that idea I started looking at Portugal as a business opportunity and exploring business in my field of real estate.

What do you have there?
We started off buying buildings with German institutions, and we expanded worldwide and bought up a large group of buildings. And then when my associates sold an asset management company years later and I had some money, and I bought a developer which I converted into a property management company. We are now by far the largest property management company in Portugal, probably twice as large as the next largest. We manage office buildings, shopping centers, commercial property in general. And we bring US or an international sophistication to Portugal. That makes us very competitive. Offshore investors who want to know every minute where the money is now can find out. And now they have an opportunity to have transparency and reporting and so on. And that assisted as inaugural. That aside we are redeveloping old palaces in a central district.

When did you start in Portugal and how often do you go there?
About 2000. I go there almost every month for three or four days. Always Lisbon.

You don’t want to manage condos on the sea in the Algarve, or go gambling in Estoril?
What fascinates me is the city. The ability to walk out of your door and be somewhere and have a lifestyle. As for Estoril, my life is a gamble, so I don’t need to go to the casino. You know every day I work I’m in the casino. I live in the casino. :)