For Victor MacFarlane, the comeback trail includes $1 billion worth of project in D.C.


Real estate investor Victor MacFarlane owns an interest in 37 properties in the Washington area. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Victor MacFarlane, manager of some of the country’s largest real estate funds, regrets some of the deals he made before the real estate bubble burst and the national economy collapsed.

For this, he has paid a price, financially and personally. His assets under management are about $4 billion, down from a high of $20 billion, and he resigned as an adviser to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System after participating in some costly bubble-era deals. The Wall Street Journal wrote two weeks ago that for MacFarlane, “the comeback trail looks especially daunting,” after his fund with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System lost more than three quarters of its value over a three-year period.

But like many investors and managers who made big bets on Washington real estate, MacFarlane has come through the recession with some properties in his portfolio whose values are likely approaching pre-recession levels. His three Washington area development partners — the JBG Cos., Jair Lynch Development Partners and Monument Realty — are all extremely active.

“In the next 12 to 18 months, we will start $1 billion worth of projects,” MacFarlane said.

He acknowledges mistakes in making purchases near the peak of the market, but thinks his critics need reminding that, “this was not a normal recession. This was the great recession.”

“People say, ‘Well Victor, you blew it.’ Well, how many people lost money in the stock market? ... I mean, who knew there were all these synthetic [combined mortgage-backed securities] behind the door that the bankers were using, and that the analysts gave such good ratings?” he said.

Part of the reason for the criticism, he said, is he only invests in highly visible markets: Washington, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. Part of it, he said, is that having founded the largest African American-owned real estate investment firm, he “looks different than a lot of people” at the top of the field.

“It works both ways,” he said of his race. “I probably get more attention, both when I succeed and when I don’t.”

Gregory M. Vilkin, MacFarlane Partners managing principal and president, said that through the ups and downs of the real estate cycle and the economy, the company has stuck to its principles of buying great real estate and following through on promises. “We do what we say we are going to do,” he said.

MacFarlane spent more time in Washington when he was part owner of D.C. United, the Major League Soccer team whose search for a new stadium spanned the time before, during and after MacFarlane’s stint as co-owner. But he and his investors — institutions including the California State Teachers’ Retirement System — still own an interest in 37 Washington area properties at a value of more than $2 billion.

Much of that, though purchased at top prices, is now primed for development.

JBG Urban LLC, a joint venture formed between MacFarlane and Chevy Chase-based JBG in 2007, owns property throughout Washington, and in some of its strongest markets. The venture is building 454 high-rise apartments at Rosslyn Commons in Arlington, and is preparing to develop 1800 Rockville Pike and the second phase of North Bethesda Market. In May, the venture sold a majority interest in the first phase of North Bethesda Market, anchored by Whole Foods Market, for $200 million.

MacFarlane, the Lehman Bros. estate and Monument Realty own a stretch of Half Street Southeast leading to the Nationals’ Park that became a symbol of over-exuberance during the recession, but is considered a prime apartment site. MacFarlane says the team is thinking now about when to begin that project.

District-based developer Jair Lynch, whose company MacFarlane partly owns, is aggressively purchasing apartment development sites, including a $51 million deal on H Street Northeast in the District. Some apartment investors already say they see an apartment bubble forming in certain areas, but MacFarlane said he isn’t worried.

“We don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” he said. “Our performance over 25 years has been exceptional.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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