Like a painter who has reached the edge of the canvas, Anthony Lanier is running out of room.
The entrepreneur made a fortune bringing high-end housing and retail to Georgetown and the West End, beginning with an M Street NW rowhouse in the 1990s. His EastBanc Inc. has built more than any other company in the two tony neighborhoods, including the Cady’s Alley shops, the Ritz Carlton and some of the most posh condominiums in the city.
But now Georgetown is Georgetown: Every developer wants to be there and there are very few opportunities left. So Lanier has branched out. Sometimes far out.
There is EastBanc Technologies, the custom software developer with offices in Siberia. There are Lanier’s investments in Portugal, where the Brazil native founded a real estate company not long before the country and Europe ran into financial straits. (“We have a big euro exposure now, but we’ll weather that,” Lanier says.)
Lanier has soured on the future of the economy. He recently read an article describing aggressive cuts to government services by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and doesn’t think it’s out of the question that similar federal cuts could dramatically cut the need for new real estate in Washington. He doesn’t see law firms and other employers needing the space or paying the rents they once did.
“What do you do if everything is flat, if there is no demand? Why are we building all these condos and office buildings if there is no demand?” he said.
And yet, Lanier is as active now as perhaps he has ever been, lining up major mixed-use projects and quickly expanding his reach from the neighborhood where he lives to Capitol Hill, U Street NW, H Street NE and Rhode Island Avenue NE. The EastBanc model, what he once described as a “conveyor belt for renovation,” is coming to a District neighborhood near you.
“I don’t think we need more real estate,” he said. “I think we need better real estate. I think we need different real estate.”
That’s not to say EastBanc is through with Georgetown. Lanier is planning new condominiums and ground floor retail on a parking lot next to a Verizon switching station on Wisconsin Avenue NW. He has a contract to purchase the Old Georgetown Post Office, with room to build in the parking lot, and would like to redevelop a defunct heating plant on K Street NW that he has had his eye on for so long that he has an oil painting of the building in his office.
He created a stir in the spring by proposing a five-story, 35-unit condo development to replace the Exxon gas station on M Street NW by the Key Bridge.
Lanier backed off the initial design for the condominiums at the Exxon site, but developer Michael Darby, the principal of Monument Realty who co-hosted a holiday party with Lanier in December, said Lanier was successful in part because of his willingness to stick to his instincts for design and retail.
“I truly admire Anthony because he has created his vision and has never compromised during the process,” Darby wrote in an e-mail. “His retail makes Georgetown ‘Georgetown,’ his office buildings are modern yet timeless, and his residential buildings are fun and completely livable.”
EastBanc’s success is built on Lanier’s patience and tenacity in navigating the neighborhood and institutional decision makers that govern development in the District.
For example: In 2007, the D.C. government issued a sole source contract to EastBanc to redevelop the West End Library and fire station with new housing on top of both. Neighborhood outcry over the deal led the D.C. Council to undo it, but three years later EastBanc won the deal and is planning 174 condominiums and 52 apartments. At a Jan. 5 zoning commission meeting, Lanier addressed complaints from residents and members of Occupy D.C. over how to include subsidized housing units.
When Lanier loses out on a deal, it isn’t pretty. After he was knocked out of a deal to redevelop the Shops at Georgetown Park mall, Lanier sued his former partner, Herbert S. Miller, helping to drive the property into distress over the objection of mutual friend Jack Evans, the Ward 2 council member.
And although much of the Georgetown glitterati celebrated a new neighborhood Safeway store at a 2010 gala, Lanier fumed that the grocer had rejected his plan to turn the old store into a mixed-use project that would anchor upper Wisconsin Avenue NW. The new store is not a destination, he said.
“These things require that you put more effort into them to make them unique,” he said.
He has been to the new store once, he said, and doubts he will be back. “It’s unpleasant. I don’t want to see a whole wall of pasta. I just want to buy the best pasta.”
Safeway officials are happy with the store.
“A good deal today is better than a perfect deal in the future,” said Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle.
Other than Hine Junior High School, a major Capitol Hill redevelopment deal that EastBanc also won from the city, Lanier has extended beyond Georgetown quietly and now has 1.5 million square feet in the pipeline.
“We want to find stuff that is not being presented to us in a book sent by CBRE and we are one of 15 guys bidding,” he said.
He provides some details. He is assembling property on the south side of U Street NW right at the Metro station, where he says he has secured a contract for 1250 U Street NW, a building with D.C. government offices upstairs and a Starbucks on the ground floor.
Lanier also purchased a large development site on the red hot H Street NE corridor in May, when EastBanc paid $6.1 million for what is currently a CVS and a surface parking lot at 845 Bladensburg Road NE.
And Lanier says he is assembling property near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station as well; he declined to offer specifics.
Do not expect Lanier to begin building the same apartment projects that others are, however. He doesn’t think that many of the thousands of new apartments under construction at the moment will succeed. “I think that we have now too many people that are doing the same stuff. And I don’t know that there’s a demand for it,” he said.
Instead, as he formulates plans for the next wave of development, he says he is constantly looking for the next retailer that can help define a neighborhood. Or, as he constantly asks himself with his Georgetown storefronts: “How do I make sure that we do not look like the Leesburg shopping center?”