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Iconic Developer Milt Peterson, Who Transformed D.C. Suburbs, Dies At 85

Milt Peterson, a pioneering developer who transformed the Maryland and Virginia suburbs with numerous large-scale developments over more than a half century, has died. 

Milt Peterson and Jon Peterson at the MGM National Harbor grand opening in December 2016.

Peterson, the founder and chairman of Peterson Cos., died of natural causes at his home surrounded by family Wednesday morning, the company said. He was 85. 

The company Peterson founded in 1965 has remained one of the most active developers in the D.C. region for decades, building projects from National Harbor to Downtown Silver Spring to Fair Lakes.

A Worcester, Massachusetts, native born in 1936, Peterson began buying properties his junior year at Middlebury College, he told Bisnow in a 2015 interview. He joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after his graduation in 1958, and then he worked for a regional homebuilder for several years before starting his own real estate company. 

In the 1970s, Peterson partnered with Til Hazel to develop a series of Northern Virginia projects, including the massive Fair Lakes business park that required the creation of the Fairfax County Parkway-Route 66 interchange. The partnership also built the Tysons-McLean office park and master-planned communities Burke Centre, Franklin Farm and Centre Ridge.

Til Hazel, Jon Peterson and Milt Peterson at a 2015 Bisnow event.

Peterson began building in Maryland in the 1990s, partnering with Foulger-Pratt and Montgomery County to develop Downtown Silver Spring, a retail and entertainment center that serves as a hub for the suburban Maryland community.

Foulger-Pratt Chairman Bryant Foulger told Bisnow Wednesday he will remember Peterson more as a person — he called him a "generous" and "wonderful" man — than as a real estate developer. In his time partnering with Peterson on projects, Foulger said what stood out was his energy and creativity. 

"I loved working with him," Foulger said. "You'd be in a conference room with a group of smart people working on a problem, and Milt would blow into the room as this force of nature and say, 'What are you doing?' We'd tell him the problem, he'd throw out a bunch of ideas, a number of which were crazy, and there was always one or two that were fabulous. And then he'd blow out of the room again. He was a remarkable person with energy and creativity, and I've never met anybody quite like him in the industry."

Peterson told Bisnow in the 2015 interview that he is famous for "playing 52 pickup," meaning he would make significant changes to major projects to respond to the market.

One of Peterson's largest and most influential projects, National Harbor, opened its first phase in 2008. The massive mixed-use development on the Potomac River in Prince George's County is now home to the MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, Tanger Outlets, multiple hotels and offices, over 80 shops and restaurants and more than 2,000 residents. 

Like many developers, Peterson faced challenges during market downturns, especially when delivering National Harbor at the start of the Great Recession. He told Bisnow in the 2015 interview that 75% of the commitments for the project's condos fell through and the company "lost our shirts."

An aerial view of National Harbor, Maryland

The market was much stronger upon the opening of the MGM in 2018, when Peterson told Bisnow he saw the casino as an anchor that will spur additional development in the area. Former Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, a longtime leader in the state who died in January, said at the MGM opening that he was glad Peterson chose to develop in Maryland. 

"We got this visionary from Virginia to come over here and invest his money and turn it into the showplace it is today, National Harbor," Miller said of Peterson at the 2018 event. 

Prince George's County Economic Development Corp., in a statement released Wednesday, said Peterson should be remembered for the vision and courage that it took to develop National Harbor. 

"It is hard to think of anyone who has been more responsible for transforming and uplifting the image and the reputation of Prince George's County than Milt Peterson," the statement said. "He looked at a worn out sand and gravel pit on the Potomac River, and transformed it into an internationally recognized destination." 

Peterson's career accomplishments have been honored several times. He was named the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce's Man of the Year in 1995, he received the Urban Land Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and in 2009 he was inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame. 

The longtime executive took a less active role in 2018, when his son Jon Peterson became CEO of the real estate company. His son Rick Peterson took over his non-real estate holdings, which included investments in a consumer healthcare company and an immersive digital experience in Times Square. 

The developer also spent his time championing a series of philanthropic causes. He and his wife, Carolyn Peterson, established the Peterson Family Foundation in 1997 and have invested more than $100M in charitable causes, according to Peterson Cos. He has supported organizations including Youth for Tomorrow, Teach for America, INOVA Health System, George Mason University and the United Methodist Church. 

Peterson is survived by his wife, Carolyn, whom he married 64 years ago, their children Lauren, Rick, Jon and Steven, his sister Sally, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

A private memorial service will be held on June 9, and Peterson Cos. will livestream it on its website. In lieu of flowers, the company asked memorial donations to be made to INOVA Life with Cancer or another charity of one's choosing.