The problem with Ted Lerner’s lifetime achievement award

Washington has no greater homegrown real estate executive than Ted Lerner. From World War II to today Lerner redefined the places where locals work, shop and live, whether it was Wheaton Plaza, White Flint or Dulles Town Center. He turned a sleepy crosssroads in then-rural Fairfax County into the regional retail destination Tysons Corner Center, returned Major League Baseball to local ownership in the nation’s capital and amassed an estimated $6 billion along the way.

He did not, however, do everything that was said of him last week when he received a lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute.

Lerner accepts few of the awards he is offered and makes few public appearances. He said in a brief interview before dinner at the gala dinner Thursday at the National Building Museum that he agreed to only after being convinced by his 13 grandchildren.

“They are the reason I’m here,” he said. In his acceptance speech, Lerner said he was proud to have developed 20 million square feet of real estate while remaining relatively anonymous.

“I guess I have a different approach to real estate than Donald Trump,” he said.

At the gala Lerner’s partners in business and at ULI pulled out all the stops for the 90-year-old magnate. Wolf Blitzer of CNN, a family friend, introduced him. Lerner Enterprises filled nine tables up front and countless partners and associates bought advertisements in the awards brochure congratulating him.

A nearly 9-minute video extolling his life’s accomplishments played featuring warm compliments from Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, former George Washington University president Stephen Trachtenberg, former baseball commissioner Bud Selig and current commissioner Rob Manfre.

Real estate magnate and Nationals owner Ted Lerner received a lifetime achievement award from the real estate group ULI. (Urban Land Institute)

Some of the testimonials take liberties with the facts. For instance, columnist George F. Will gestures to Nationals Park in the background behind and congratulates Lerner for having built it. Actually the D.C. government oversaw construction of Nationals Park and paid for nearly all of it as well, at a cost of $670 million to D.C. taxpayers.

Will also praises Lerner for having opened the Nationals Baseball Academy, in Southeast D.C. The Nationals and its charitable arm paid for $3 million of that project, about 20 percent of the cost (and about what they pay pitcher Max Scherzer for a third of a season). D.C. taxpayers put in $10.2 million and Major League Baseball paid $1 million.

There’s no crime in employing a touch of hyberbole when lauding such an accomplished entrepreneur. But there is a question why ULI so celebrated a man whose building practices are now being critiqued by many of its members.

Though it is a real estate association, ULI often acts as a think tank for those interested in revitalizing cities. It has grown in membership and influence as people and companies have flocked back to urban areas in recent years. It is dedicated to “the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.”

Lerner is rightly credited with doing more to create Tysons Corner than anyone but the modern Tysons — one of the most congested, sprawling suburban areas anywhere in America — isn’t the sort of thing ULI members generally celebrate. Indeed, much of the work in Tysons today has to do with undoing the single use suburban malls and office parks that made Lerner and his table mate Thursday, zoning king Til Hazel, so wealthy.

ULI specializes in considering how to remake places with Tysons-like problems into flourishing urban areas. It frequently publishes work and holds forums on how to retrofit places like Tysons (“Not Your Parents’ Suburbs”) and Landover Mall, which Lerner built but had to demolish after it failed, into other things.

Unlike many ULI members who extol the virtues of public transit, Lerner has sometimes held a different view. When Metro agreed to build a Silver Line station on his doorstep in Tysons, he sued Virginia over how much he would be paid for the staging area (a jury sided with the commonwealth). When a Nationals playoff game ran late into the evening, his team refused to pick up the $30,000 tab to run extra cars.

Lerner plays hardball in more ways than one, and in real estate that sometimes means lawsuits. Lerner sued the District over ballpark construction, asking $100,000 a day in damages because he said work was still not done two months after it opened. He sued Fairfax County five years ago over development rights in Reston. When Lord & Taylor officials asked that he not tear down White Flint Mall in violation of his contract with them, he did it anyway. A jury awarded the department store $31 million in damages. (This was after Ted’s brother Lawrence sued him over the mall as well.)

Some ULI members have quietly questioned whether this constitutes award-winning behavior. In an e-mail Lisa Rother, executive director of ULI Washington, explained why Lerner was chosen:

ULI Washington is honored to present its Lifetime Achievement Award to Ted Lerner because of the tremendous impact he and his family have had on this region.  As a visionary real estate developer, generous philanthropist, MLB team owner, and a pillar of the community, Mr. Lerner has positively changed the face of the region over his decades of commitment to making the area the best that it can be.  His integrity, high standards and commitment to excellence are evident in everything he has done.  Residents proudly wear the Curly W to show their pride in the Washington Nationals.  They shop, live and work in the buildings and communities that Ted Lerner envisioned and built  and benefit from his generous philanthropy in universities and other civic amenities.

It’s easy to say simply that things were different when Lerner was making his name. Shopping malls at the time were where people wanted to shop and office parks were where they wanted to work. People preferred driving so of course they needed more roads.

Lerner is surely not to blame for all the region’s ills. But that type of development is one of the reasons that Washingtonians now endure some of the worst traffic and most polluted air in the country.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a transit advocacy group, said he appreciated the way Lerner had come around later in his career toward more environmentally sustainable practices.

“In the first decades that Mr. Lerner was developing the region, few understood the negative impacts of separated uses and completely auto dependent development,” Schwartz said. “We certainly face traffic and environmental challenges today due to the way the region grew.”

In Schwartz’s view, it may be difficult to condemn Tysons and shopping malls while celebrating Ted Lerner. But not impossible.

“Mr. Lerner has had a huge influence on regional development and we are pleased to see the commitment he has made to the new generation of transit-oriented development in Tysons, White Flint and the Nationals Stadium,” Schwartz added. “In this next generation for his firm, it will be critical that they include a focus on walkable urban design and creating great places as experienced by the pedestrian.”

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