Influenced by his Viennese background, Washington, D.C. real estate developer Anthony Lanier has created an urban environment with all the amenities of a city’s community life. Within a period of fifteen years, he and his colleagues at EastBanc revitalized the historic district of Georgetown, turning it into a modern and welcoming landscape. In an interview with Austrian Information he speaks about the beginnings of his career, the challenges of urban revitalization and projects for the future.
You came to the United States in the 1980s as a young man and established your real estate investment firm, EastBanc, in 1987. How did you get started in the real estate business? Is there any particular reason why you became involved with urban redevelopment in a city like Washington, D.C., which tends to have a more conservative architectural landscape (primarily brick), compared with other cities with more design flair, such as San Francisco or Miami, etc.?
I got involved in real estate through my family who had friends in the real estate business in Vienna. It was a company by the name of Interpool that still exists. At that time real estate involved finding and renting apartments appropriate for diplomats. Through the company and its founder whose father was an architect, we entered the commercial real estate market with two major projects: a well known building on the Praterstraße and the development of the Hilton. Although I entered real estate while still in Vienna I later left because of a desire to go somewhere else. I joined an international firm that had an office in Vienna. This allowed me to get into international real estate, and I subsequently got involved in the Middle East and moved to London. When the company had some difficulties in the early 1980’s with their U.S. business, they frequently called me to Washington, D.C. During that time I completed one business deal, then another, and with time I came to realize that it was easier to make a living in Washington than it was in London where salaries were still very limited.
I soon became involved in financing commercial real estate in the U.S. until one day I felt that having begun in Austria with castles and quality of life, I was stuck in financing large buildings in New York and Washington, D.C. when in fact I wanted to own them. And so I decided to start my own company and left my former company. I quit on Friday and the following Monday the stock market crashed in October 1987. It was not a good time but my former boss challenged me to stick to my decision. And so we started our own company - what brought me to Washington, where one coincidence was followed by another. In the midst of frequent flights to Denver or New Jersey developing various types of businesses, one day my wife suggested I could renovate buildings like the one across the street which was in dire need of repair. That is how I came to buy my first building in Georgetown. I soon realized that buying small buildings was not lucrative, so our company decided to buy more and develop an urban revitalization project.
Washington, D.C. has presumably many buildings which are historic landmarks and fall under strict laws governing historic preservation. Did this serve as a difficult obstacle when wishing to redevelop an area like Georgetown? And what were the greatest challenges you faced when approaching the task of urban development?
Most architects prefer to start with an empty piece of land, when in fact some of the best architecture is created when you already have something that you can work with – a challenge. Historic rehabilitation is nothing less than such a challenge, and I was fascinated with existing structures, how to work with them, what to do to them and how to enlarge them. I was lucky for I had a good eye and was able to create some fascinating buildings. The more we started rehabilitating old buildings, the more we were excited about the complexity of bringing them into the 21st century.
Having grown up in Vienna and living in Georgetown, I missed the concept of an urban city as a place where everyday tasks - like going to the bank, having a hair cut, going to the tailor, having your shoes fixed - can be carried out right in the city as in Vienna. You would run into people - it will always turn out to be a nice afternoon or a nice weekend. In Washington, we still don’t have a pedestrian zone nor a place to gather. In thinking about this I felt that if there was any place where this could possibly work it was Georgetown. With that in mind, I started thinking how one could make Georgetown the place to be and not to say, “Let’s meet Saturday in that restaurant,” but “I’ll be in Georgetown. We’ll run across each other.” The mother of urban revitalization and historic readaptation of real estate and the environment is to this day to be found in the center of Vienna.
As for regulations, historic revitalization is a very subjective trade. The opposition – so to speak – is the historic preservation officer or the historic preservation board or commission, whatever you prefer to call them. Generally they are fighting with people because they want to preserve something while the others want to destroy it. In our case we had a productive relationship. Having grown up in Vienna in old buildings and having witnessed their renovation, I sometimes had a better idea of historic preservation than most of the people who opposed me in public hearings.
You are known for your vision of turning areas of Washington, D.C., - Georgetown in particular - not only into a modern, up-scale retail district but also into an urban ‘community’. You said that this vision was influenced by having spent your formative years in Vienna. Have traditions like the Viennese coffeehouses influenced your vision when developing such things in Georgetown?
I was not driven by the Kaffeehauskultur, but I certainly missed Austrian cafés. And when arguing with people that I needed a restaurant in the project and nobody wanted to do it, I said I am convinced it will work, and since I had to finance it anyway, I will do it myself. So we developed an Austrian Kaffeehaus concept without trying to create a copy of an Austrian café in Washington. Because so many Austrian restaurants try to portray the Austria of yesterday, I wanted to show the essence of Austria but with a modern design. The core of Austrian cafés is good pastry. The second thing is good food that one can have any time of the day in a small way. The third thing about Austrian cafés is that they are never closed but always open from morning to night. Some people go there to drink their glass of wine; some people go for lunch and some older ladies go to have cake in the afternoon. So if we create the opportunity for all these things, they will happen. That is what I think is interesting about Kaffeehauskultur because every Kaffeehaus develops its own culture. The most important thing about coffeehouses in Vienna is that they are a product of an old favorable leasing law rather than the dictates of economic pressure. And since the café which we created, Café Leopold in Georgetown, is not the core of our business but is more for our pleasure, we are able to maintain a coffeehouse culture, and that is what attracts a lot of people every day.
Having grown up in Austria, do you still maintain close ties to Austria?
I am in Austria all the time. The older I become, the more I miss where I grew up. I like to ski in Austria and do it every year. My goal is to ski no less than thirty days per year, and most of those days I ski in Austria. I fly often to Vienna, and now that we have offices in Russia, one of my favorite stopovers is Washington-Vienna-Vienna-Moscow.
Speaking about Europe, I also read an article on a project in Portugal. Can you speak about your future plans as a real estate investor, both here and abroad?
Certainly. We opened up a new market in Lisbon, and there is no more beautiful project imaginable in my business other than the one we are building in Lisbon. I was born in Brazil, have a Portuguese wife and speak Portuguese. But why Lisbon really – because it is very difficult to do urban revitalization in a major city when you want to buy the best piece of the city. It would be great if you wanted to revitalize the first district of Vienna, but nobody would sell me the first district of Vienna. The first district in Lisbon looked as down trodden as parts of the center of Washington, D.C. For that reason, we were able to buy the best real estate.
Our next step is to expand into areas where revitalization was never started. One of them would be Russia where we are trying to launch our real estate development ideas. For Russia we will reach out from Vienna in the ultimate belief that the Viennese know the Russians better than others and know more about what I want to do than the Russians do. The other one is Brazil, which is a young country. People want to build new things instead of repairing them; at the same time, Brazil has grown to a point that it is worthwhile to fix some of the old things like downtown areas. Perhaps urban revitalization will take off in Sao Paolo, Brazil. And then we are looking into Siberia with our next development project. We have an office in Novosibirsk and were given the opportunity to develop an urban core of one of the satellite cities of Novosibirsk called Scientific City. Moscow has always been of great interest for everybody, whereas Novosibirsk for me is more of interest to academics and intellectuals. If we create good urban planning and urban revitalization, it will change people’s lives there. In addition, we are trying to open up an office in Dubai with our software company. We will always pursue our goals as a company while seeking the adventure of business.
The current real estate market in the U.S. appears to be strongly affected by the economy. To what extent are your current projects touched by the downturn?
To say that one is not affected is inaccurate, but I believe that because every piece of real estate we have built is a unique building, we have a portfolio that will always retain its value, is greatly unaffected, and benefits the environment. The other thing that bad economic times force us to do is to look at every option here and abroad. Part of our motivation to go to Russia or Brazil is that while we have a poor credit environment, those countries are expanding and flourishing with new sets of opportunities.
Born 1952 in Rio de Janeiro to an Austrian mother and American father, Anthony Lanier was raised in Vienna. He studied economics at the University of Vienna while working with a real estate company and pursued his career initially in Saudi Arabia and then England. He came to the United States in the early 1980s, established EastBanc in 1987, and became a real estate investor and developer in Washington, D.C. His revitalization project of Georgetown and West End injected historic buildings with quality retail businesses and up-scale residences while keeping the local flavor and creating a community life modeled after the rebuilding of post-war Vienna. He lives in Georgetown with his Portuguese wife and children, travels widely and is currently involved with urban redevelopment in Portugal and Russia.