Miller Makes Nordstrom Part of his D.C. Utopia

Originally posted in The Examiner on Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Written by Harry Jaffe

Herb Miller has visions.

He sees happy diners eating and drinking at restaurants terraced over the C&O canal in Georgetown.

He sees Georgetown Park, the enclosed mall he now controls, serving as both a place to buy edgy fashion and view the latest modern art.

He sees the District of Columbia government helping to make his dreams come true with tax breaks.

Whether or not you have visions, you might see Miller’s ideas in brick, glass and mortar by 2010. A local developer who’s made his mark across the country, Miller usually builds what he wants and gets the government to help.

Believe it or not, Georgetown might need D.C.’s help. Our landmark shopping and dining destination suddenly has competition from resurgent parts of town. Don’t forget that Georgetown, with its nose pointing to the sky, fought a Metro stop, in order to keep out the riffraff in the 1970s. Thirty years later, Georgetown is suffering from its elitist tendencies.

Herb Miller has had a front-row seat on Georgetown’s falling fortunes. It’s not a stretch to call Miller Washington’s preeminent retail magnate.

Born in Silver Spring in 1943, he went to Blair High and George Washington University. “When I was a kid,” he tells me, “Georgia Avenue was the hot area.”

He went to work as a broker out of college. At 24 he flew to Dallas and helped persuade Stanley Marcus to bring his Neiman and Marcus store to Mazza Gallery at the corner of Wisconsin and Western.

In 1967, he founded Western Development and started building strip shopping centers. Ever dropped a few dollars at Potomac Mills? Miller minted the first “big box” mall development and built them around the country.

In 1979, the corner of Wisconsin and M streets, Georgetown’s intersection, was a bus garage. Miller bought it and built Georgetown Park two years later. Since then, he’s developed Washington Harbor, Market Square on Pennsylvania Avenue and, most recently, Gallery Place.

Miller sold Georgetown Park to a Sears in 1986, but he kept the option to buy it back. “It took them 20 years to screw it up,” he says. “They walled off the place. You can’t tell it’s a shopping center.”

Miller bought it back in March, fresh off his failure to develop around the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark. A longtime resident of Georgetown, he went to community meetings.

“It’s their community. What do they want to see?”

Miller sees a boutique hotel, maybe condos – and a Nordstrom. But he also sees a $20 million tax break from the city, like a similar contribution that greased the deal to create Gallery Place.

He faces a fight. Bean counter Natwar Gandhi has warned against such breaks, because they increase the city’s debt. But Miller can count on political support from almost every council member, especially Jack Evans, his neighbor and friend.

My vision is a shopping trip to Nordstrom in three years – and dinner over the canal.