D.C. Developer Sways the City With Big Bucks and Big Ideas
Miller Aims to Build Near Nationals Park

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A01

Developer Herbert S. Miller boasts that he can thank a taxi driver in any of 55 languages. He lives in a 28,000-square-foot Georgetown mansion with spiral staircases, two pools, a spa and a gym. He has developed an energy plan that he says could change the way Americans live.

Miller, 63, speaks eloquently, lives large and thinks big, which is why friends, colleagues and even some competitors call him a visionary whose ideas lead him places where others won't go or can't get to. Potomac Mills, Washington Harbor and Gallery Place are among his signature achievements.

This summer, Miller has worked his way into a key role in the biggest project in town: the construction of an entertainment district near the planned Washington Nationals baseball stadium in Southeast Washington.

Unlike other developers who purchased land near the ballpark site, Miller came to the table with nothing but some rolled-up diagrams and his formidable personality. And he's on the verge of walking away with approval for a $300 million development on city-owned land just beyond the outfield wall.

This month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. Council, hoping Miller can realize their dream of remaking a neglected part of town, endorsed his plan to build shops, restaurants, condos and a luxury hotel around two parking garages.

"He did have an aggressive vision that set him apart from a lot of folks," said Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., chartered by Williams to oversee the development.

In particular, Goldsmith said, Miller won points for including retail on the first floor of the complex. "Some thought he was too aggressive, but nevertheless he's visionary. . . . He's here by the force of his vision and energy."

Yet as Miller scrambles to secure financing and develop specific designs for his two 13-story towers, he's facing stiff opposition from the family of Bethesda developer Theodore N. Lerner, the owners of the Nationals. That family's hermetic approach and relentless attention to detail clash mightily with the more flamboyant Miller.

The Lerner group has lobbied heavily against Miller's involvement, saying it fears his project is too ambitious to complete by the time the ballpark is scheduled to open in April 2008. The District's chief financial officer agrees. In private, the Lerner group refers to Miller's twin towers as "Mothra" and "Godzilla."

"The proposal will not work for many reasons," Stan Kasten, the Nationals' new president, wrote to the council this month. "But most important, it has the potential to cause considerable damage."

The Lerner group's position irritates the usually garrulous Miller. It has been a stressful month for Miller, who raced home two weeks ago after a gruesome slaying on the driveway of his mansion. Assailants slashed the throat of Alan Senitt, a British activist who was accompanying home a woman who formerly worked for Miller and lives in a basement apartment of Miller's home.

Sitting in the Georgetown office of his 12-person company, Western Development Corp., flanked by his son Ben Miller, 30, and business partner Jair Lynch, a former Olympic gymnast, Herbert Miller dug his fingers tightly into the sides of an armchair and grimaced.

"The only delay, in my opinion, is if they don't give us design approval," Miller said of the Lerner group, which will review his plans and financing strategy early next month. The outcome could go a long way toward determining the look, feel and, ultimately, success of the ballpark district.

"We understand the potential risks, and we've tried to mitigate them," Miller said. "If we don't make our dates, shoot us in the head. But we will make the dates."

Hits and Misses

Born and raised in Washington, Miller has been aiming high since he peddled a Coke to President John F. Kennedy during the Washington Senators' opening game at RFK Stadium in 1962. Or so Miller says.

Miller is guardian of his own legend, throwing in self-deprecating jokes while reeling off his accomplishments: wrote his graduate thesis about the potential of Washington Harbor in Georgetown; founded a company in 1967; built Potomac Mills in the mid-1980s in Woodbridge when no one thought a discount super-mall would work; made good on his thesis with the Washington Harbor project in the late 1980s.

"What was the award I got recently?" Miller asked. "Old fart of the year? No, Washington Developer Hall of Fame."

But the flip side to Miller's greatest hits are his biggest flops. He was forced out of his first company, now called Mills Corp., in the mid-1990s when it suffered stock losses after Miller took it public; he is suing his former partners. His effort to bring the Potomac Mills concept to Japan was met with indifference. Even the Gallery Place project, with its shops, restaurants and condos next to Verizon Center in the District, was delayed for years because of financing problems and only now is booming.

"He sells things that sometimes don't seem to be sellable," said Paul Cohn, chief executive of Georgia Brown's restaurant and a friend of Miller's. "People think, 'That's not going to work. You're crazy.' But he's right more than he's wrong. He's a very creative guy, and a lot of things are going on in his head at one time. You have to rein it in at some point."

During the recent interview in his office, Miller waxed about his plan to turn sugar cane into ethanol to help the country's energy crisis, his secret effort to save the Democratic Party, his role in founding the progressive think tank Third Way and how he once hired a trainer to help a 7-foot-3 Ghanian accountant who had an office next door try out for the Washington Wizards. (He failed to make the team.)

At one point, Miller explained that he can say "hello" in several tribal languages of Nigeria and Ghana.

"And Burkina Faso," his son Ben added. "You should watch people when he does it. They're blown away."

Miller loves to talk, and perhaps that's why he entertains so often. A major Democratic fundraiser who has donated upward of $100,000 in past years to national political candidates and causes, Miller has hosted parties for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Howard Dean.

After buying the mansion that a decade ago was a nursing home, Miller, who has five children from two marriages, spent six years and many millions of dollars renovating the place.

Carol Joynt, a friend who operates Nathans restaurant in Georgetown, said Miller loves to grab a microphone and sing for his guests: "When his son Daniel had his bar mitzvah, Herb hired a big band wearing white jackets, and Herb took the mike and began singing Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra."

Politician-Friendly

Miller's impressive socializing has another motive: to get close to the people he needs for his business deals.

On March 5, Miller and his wife, Patrice, hosted a 70th birthday party for Ward 8 council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D), a $1,000-per-head event that raised money for a scholarship fund.

To say Miller is tight with city officials is an understatement. Council member Jack Evans's back yard touches Miller's, and Evans's dog has roaming privileges. Miller phoned Barry on the dais Feb. 7 and helped persuade Barry to change his vote and support the stadium project so the council could finally approve a lease agreement.

"I wouldn't put anything past Herb Miller," said council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who is running for mayor and held a birthday fundraiser at Miller's home this spring. "I think what Herb does is sell the success of his portfolio."

Miller also gives money. This year, he, his wife, his company and his son Ben have donated $15,000 to D.C. political campaigns. The gifts include $6,000 to council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who is running for mayor, and $2,500 to Cropp's chief competitor, council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).

"He's his own economic development machine," said Mitchell N. Schear, president of Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty.

City politicians are so friendly with Miller that competitors have been crying favoritism since Barry, then mayor, awarded him the hotly contested Washington Harbor project. Miller is hardly apologetic.

Before Major League Baseball returned to Washington, Miller was in the thick of the mayor's push for a franchise. In 2004, Miller was hawking his plan to build underground parking and aboveground development at Banneker Overlook, at the foot of L'Enfant Promenade.

When Williams landed the Montreal Expos and announced that a stadium would be built near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard along the Anacostia River, Miller was touting a massive development plan that included parking a Navy destroyer in the Anacostia to house a museum. The poster board with the plan dated Jan. 19, 2005, still hangs on the door in Evans's council office.

When the mayor's staff sat across from the Lerner group two months ago to begin negotiations, it was Miller, more than anyone else, who offered the strategic plans to match the mayor's vision.

Miller was not present at most of the meetings, but city officials used his designs as the basis for their insistence that integrated development could work and to rebuff the Lerners' demand for free-standing parking garages.

Drinking coffee from a "Gallery Place: The Groundbreaking" mug, Miller tried to play down the tension between him and the Lerner group. "It's not about me and the Lerners," he said. "They're good people."

Then Miller got back to self-promotion. Having recently put his home on the market for $28 million -- believed to be the highest listing in D.C. history for a private residence -- Miller vowed to buy a condo in the buildings he hopes to erect near the new ballpark.

"Mark Lerner lives in my building on the Washington Harbor," Miller said of Theodore Lerner's son. "I'm going to live in the building at their stadium."

Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company