Being Herb Miller — Washington, DC Real Estate Pioneer Committed To Giving Back

Originally posted in on Thursday, May 3, 2012
Written by LaToya Foster

The next time you’re having dinner at the Washington Harbor while taking in the serenity of the Potomac River, or enjoying a movie at Gallery Place, or perhaps shopping for that too-good-to-be-true deal at Potomac Mills, you need to send a thank-you note to Herb Miller, CEO of the Western Development Corporation.

Miller is the creator of the Washington Harbor, Mazza Gallerie, Georgetown Park Mall, Gallery Place, Potomac Mills and the Mills Corporation (Arundel Mills, Franklin Mills, Sawgrass Mills–you get my drift) that swept across the country.

When I recently visited Miller in his Georgetown home, the friendly, engaging, yet extremely modest developer and Washington real estate pioneer discussed his accomplishments, the keys to success, projects that he’s most passionate about, all while giving us a local history lesson.

“I like doing creative things, but I like doing things that are good for society that also have economic benefits for the community,” said Miller. “I’ve built about 25 million feet of projects.”

Miller’s visions began while studying urban planning at George Washington University. Miller was hungry, ambitious, and destined for success. “I was about twenty-one when I put on my suit and tie and walked into the office of one of the biggest developers, Jerry Wolman (real estate developer and former owner of the National Football League’s (NFL) Philadelphia Eagles). Remarkable man. He wasn’t there, but his brother was, who suggested that I become a mortgage banker or a broker to learn money or value. I became a full-time broker while attending school full time.”

Miller graduated from George Washington University equipped with a degree in Urban and Regional Development and his eye on the prize.

“After I graduated, I went to work for Shannon and Luchs. I headed up their development arm, which is where I put the Mazza Gallerie deal together. I must have been twenty-five when I called Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus, really nice man, and told him he should come to Washington and bring Neiman Marcus.” Miller’s vision for Mazza Gallerie was to be a major retail center with housing, but the housing wasn’t approved.

In 1967, Miller struck out on his own and founded the Western Development Corporation, a Washington, DC based real estate development and management organization, which focuses on mixed-use and retail projects.“I started my own deals as a referred developer for Safeway, building 26 strip centers–I built Safeways in Reston Town Center, Great Falls, Briggs Chaney, Montgomery Village–strip centers all over the area. In the late 70s, I got involved in Herman’s Sporting Goods. I became friendly with their attorney, and his father, who was a major financier behind O. Roy Chalk’s businesses–who owned Capital Transit, which became DC Transit. He was a financier. I bought Georgetown Park from him. He gave me a loan option to buy it. I partnered with Donohoe (Construction) and we built the first urban mall in America.”

Miller also watched a vision that he had as a student at GWU come true as well. “The CSX Corporation owned the Waterfront, so I ventured with them to build Washington Harbor. I actually studied that site in planning school as a student, and twenty-five years later, I owned it, so persistence is key.”

In the late eighties, Miller put together a venture and built Market Square, and then began building value-oriented super centers. “The number one reasons why people shop are for value, selection and entertainment,” said Miller. Miller owned the land that would become Potomac Mills, and convinced Waccamaw Pottery and IKEA to become anchor stores. He also convinced Nordstrom Rack to come on board, which became the first Nordstrom Rack on the east coast. The rest is history. Potomac Mills was born, which would lead to Franklin Mills in Philadelphia, Sawgrass Mills in Fort Lauderdale, and a host of other Mills value centers across the country.

Miller has always been able to recognize the needs and wants of his target audiences.

“You really have to know what the consumer wants, and that gives you a better chance to succeed.”

With so much work and negotiating involved, do you still find the work to be fun? “They’re not fun if you’re not making money,” said Miller. “Quite often, you don’t know if you’ll make money, you just have to do what’s right and what feels right. I can tell you this. The longer a project takes, the greater chance they have of not making money,” said Miller. “Any project, the longer it takes, the higher the risks.”

Miller retired from the Mills Corporation in 1995, and set his sights back on Washington, DC. “This city had gone through bankruptcy when I talked to Marion (Barry). Marion said, ‘you’ve got to get the heart beating before the rest of the body works.’ Miller led the Mayor’s Interactive Downtown Taskforce, committed to revitalizing downtown DC. “So Marion convinced Abe Polin to build the Verizon Center. We brought together citizens groups, the Undersecretary of Commerce, Disney, Time Warner–116 people joined. So many people joined we kept making subcommittees. I wanted to make Seventh Street into Main Street again.”

That project is what we now know as Gallery Place, which opened in 2004, comprising office space, retail/entertainment, dining and residential all under one roof. “The reason it worked is because everyone did their share.”

Miller is the epitome of success, but in these challenging economic times, what are the key to success? “You have to have the right parents to give you the foundation to be successful, the right commitment to never say no to failure, and you need to have something that people need,” said Miller. “You have to be determined about what you believe in. It’s 70% hard work, 20% expertise and 10% luck.”

As the country continues to argue about government involvement, I was curious to learn Mr. Miller’s thoughts. Does government have any responsibility due to these challenging times? “You can’t depend on the government to be the messiah,” said Miller, who is a staunch Democrat. “It’s about putting responsibility on your own back, but also doing what you can to touch a life and make the lives of others better.”

Aside from his children, who he declares are his greatest development, giving back is what Miller is most passionate about. The father of five tutored underprivileged children every Saturday for seven years. “There needs to be more sense of community,” said Miller. “People need to give their time. If everyone gave a couple hours a week, you wouldn’t have this social problem.”

So what’s next for this visionary and philanthropist who has had such an impact on not only the Nation’s Capital, but the country? Miller has once again reinvented himself and now focuses his time, energy and resources on the Chesapeake Crescent Initiative, a regional collaborative, which he founded along with George Vradenburg, comprised of public, private and academic sector partners to advance innovation in energy, life sciences and security in the Chesapeake Crescent region of Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia. “We have to innovate,” said Miller. “How do you convert this into jobs? There needs to be better sharing of innovation–government and private sector.” Herb Miller’s wheels are forever turning. One thing you can count on, whatever project he touches, it will be one-of-a-kind, and will forever impact lives.