Done with development career, Herbert Miller seeks role in Gray administration
One of the District's most charismatic real estate figures, Herbert S. Miller, says he has reached the end of his development career and hopes his next move is to become part of a Vincent C. Gray administration.
Miller, 67, founded Western Development more than 40 years ago and has developed more than 20 million square feet, including four landmark properties that transformed District neighborhoods. In the 1980s he redefined Georgetown by building Washington Harbour and the Shops at Georgetown Park, and began the renaissance of Penn Quarter with the construction of the Market Square office plaza. Years later it was his vision that shaped Gallery Place, the bustling $250 million residential and retail development that joined the Verizon Center in defining the East End.
Miller also has long ties to Gray, the D.C. Council chairman who beat Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic primary for mayor Sept. 14 and is running unopposed in the general election in November. They both attended George Washington University and were members of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity, of which Gray became the first black member. Miller also raised money for Gray's campaign because, he says, he believes in the chairman's vision of uniting the city. Though Miller remains chairman of Western, he says he removed himself from day-to-day operations there Aug. 15 and that he has informed Gray of his interest in the deputy mayor's job, currently held by Fenty appointee Valerie Santos.
"My point is, at this point, all I have interest in is making our city better," Miller said. "I don't want to do any projects in D.C."
Gray has said he would not make any personnel decisions until after the general election. It is widely expected that Santos, a former vice president at the real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, will not remain on the job, though she says she has made no decision to resign. "Until I sit down with Chairman Gray, I really don't have much to stay at this point," she said.
A Gray adviser, Mo Elleithee, called Miller a big supporter of the campaign but said that Gray was looking to expand the position beyond real estate development.
"I think in looking at the position of deputy mayor for planning and economic development, he really wants to broaden the role and make it beyond just RFPs and development projects, but make sure that we've got someone in there who also is focused on business development and job creation and helping small businesses," Elleithee said.
Miller, who lives in Georgetown, has not been a shrinking violet during his career. He has alienated partners in the past, most recently Anthony Lanier, with whom he entered into an ugly, four-year legal dispute. Lanier's EastBanc is the city's partner on two major developments, Hine Junior High School on Capitol Hill and a fire station and library in the West End. And Miller sued the city after D.C. killed his plans to build two condominium projects near the Washington Nationals' ballpark, landing a $2 million settlement.
Political reasons also appear to make Miller's appointment unlikely. Gray repeatedly accused Fenty during the campaign of lavishing contracts on his own fraternity brothers. "Given the way this campaign played out, I don't seem him appointing a lot of fraternity brothers," said a source close to the chairman who was not authorized to speak about Gray's thought process.
Miller certainly has supporters in the development industry. "Herb is someone that is passionate about cities, urban areas, retail and having high-energy, urban environments, and I think he also has a real love for Washington, D.C.," said Tom Wilbur, an executive at Akridge, which co-developed Gallery Place with Western.
Miller says he now volunteers most of his time planning redevelopment of the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital, a property that is likely to be a development priority under the Gray administration. His free time results partly from Western no longer owning any development sites and having lost two major properties to foreclosure recently, the Shops at Georgetown Park and Towson Commons, a shopping center in suburban Baltimore, when a financial partner went bankrupt. Miller said Western is managing its existing obligations by providing services to other owners. Two of his sons, Benjamin, 34, and Daniel, 23, are working on their own as developers at WestMill Capital.
What he needs, Miller says, is somewhere else to bring his vision.
"I don't need the money. I'll do it for a dollar a year, I don't care," he said.