A Family That Plays Hardball
Monday, October 9, 2006
To District officials, the concrete columns rising along South Capitol Street represent the beginning of a sweeping renewal of the Anacostia River waterfront, not just the foundation of a new $611 million stadium for the Washington Nationals.
For the team's owner, the family of 80-year-old billionaire shopping mall developer Theodore N. Lerner, there are more immediate goals. Every few days, the Lerners call or visit city officials with their latest desire: an executive dining room, and in the luxury suites, individual bathrooms and a special window glaze. They want close-in parking for the best-paying fans and have turned down several ideas for how to build it. They don't want to pay for cost overruns. Recently, Lerner himself wanted to know precisely where the team's souvenir store would be. When a city official described it, Lerner said he needed to see actual plans.
"These are the guys who invented hardball," said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.
The sense of promise that surrounded baseball's return to Washington is colliding with the hard realities of building the team a home. At the center of that collision are the Lerners, a fiercely private, tightly knit family that has turned its company into a regional juggernaut with an emphasis on nuts-and-bolts details and demands.
When Major League Baseball selected the Lerners as the Nationals' owners this spring, baseball boosters took heart in the family's local roots, deep pockets and pledge to invest in a winning team. City officials hoped the family's development experience would bring high-quality services to the stadium and propel a waterfront revitalization, a major justification for building the ballpark with city money.
But the Lerners also came with something else: an all-business approach that helps explain the friction with the city over the stadium.
The Lerners defend their style of doing business, saying they stick to their agreements and expect the same of others. "We are people who honor the deal," said Robert K. Tanenbaum, Lerner's son-in-law and a principal of Lerner Enterprises, in a rare interview with members of the family.
Over the past four decades, several of the family's business relationships have ended in acrimony over what some tenants, contractors and partners say is an unwillingness to compromise and an insistence on the fine print of agreements.
The family has also found itself at odds with government planners, saying their ambitious ideas often show little appreciation of economic realities. The Lerners don't talk about their work in terms of leaving a broader civic legacy. Instead, they say, they simply aspire to build successful projects, with an eye to the bottom line and the long-term security of the family.
That tension is playing out at Tysons Corner, which the Lerners helped transform into a commercial hub but where their current plans clash with the vision of Fairfax County officials.
John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., the prominent Northern Virginia land-use lawyer and developer, shares the Lerners' skepticism of planners and expects that view will continue to complicate the family's relations with the District.
"One thing I could have predicted was that Ted was going to do his own thing," said Hazel, who represented Lerner at Tysons. "The District is learning that Ted didn't get where he is, or become as successful as he is, by following all the rabbit holes that planners and politicians set out."