Nats owner Ted Lerner remembered as ‘visionary’ for developing Tysons malls

Ted Lerner (courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club)

Before he helped oversee the Washington Nationals’ rise from cellar dwellers to World Series champions, Ted Lerner was busy building Tysons.

The real estate developer who transformed rural farmland into Fairfax County’s urban center died Sunday (Feb. 12) at the age of 91 in his Chevy Chase, Maryland, home. The cause was complications from pneumonia, as first reported by the Washington Post.

As founder and principal of Lerner Enterprises, Lerner laid the groundwork for Tysons by establishing Tysons Corner Center — now one of the biggest and busiest malls in the D.C. area — and the nearby Tysons II development. This work made him a visionary in the eyes of those now charged with shaping the area’s future.

“Ted Lerner was a visionary who laid a foundation for a mixed use Tysons Center which is now continuing to evolve into a dynamic urban community,” Tysons Community Alliance Chair Josh White said to FFXnow. “His contributions will continue on well into the future.”

In a memorial video from Lerner Enterprises, Lerner said his work in both real estate and baseball focused on “striving for excellence and building for future generations.”

“That way, it’s not about the properties at all. It’s about community. It’s about the future,” he said.

A native of D.C. and Army veteran, Theodore Lerner entered the real estate industry in 1951 with a $250 loan from his wife, painter and sculptor Annette Morris, according to a bio provided by the Nationals.

After initially getting a foothold in housing as a pioneer of concepts like model houses and centralized sales, he turned to the retail market with investments in Maryland’s Wheaton Plaza, which opened in 1960, and the land at the intersection of routes 7 and 123 then known as Tysons Corner.

When Lerner and fellow developer Gerald Halpin started building in Tysons, the area had little in the way of amenities beyond a corner store and a beer joint amid dairy farms and fruit orchards, according to the Post. That changed with the arrival of the Capital Beltway in 1961 and Dulles International Airport in 1962.

In a heated battle for control, the developer team of Lerner, Homer Gudelsky and H. Max Ammerman beat Baltimore banker James Rouse to get the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ approval for its $20 million plan to build a shopping center on 85 acres on the northeast side of the crossroads.

Tysons Corner Center opened in 1968 to quick success with an initial focus on local businesses, the Post reported in an extensive 1988 profile.

“When Tysons was still an apple orchard, he understood the potential for population growth and the demand for retail that would follow,” Fairfax County Economic Development Authority president and CEO Victor Hoskins said. “He predicted the emergence and value of enclosed malls which were a new concept at the time and helped transform Tysons into a predominant retail cluster in the Mid-Atlantic region.”

The history of Tysons II is a bit more complex. While the Tysons Corner Center team collectively bought the land in 1963, the site stayed untouched through the 1970s due to some internal disputes, including over Lerner’s push for a bigger stake.

Lerner ultimately acquired the 117 acres owned by Gudelsky and Ammerman in 1982 with a $35 million bid at a “tense courtroom auction,” according to the Nationals. It was a record price for land in the D.C. suburbs at the time.

Tysons II was cemented by the opening of Tysons Galleria in 1988 and now also boasts The Ritz-Carlton hotel and 10 office buildings, known collectively as the Corporate Office Centre at Tysons II.

Approved for approximately 6.8 million square feet of mixed-use development, per the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, the 11-acre district is still being built out. Lerner Enterprises announced plans just last year for a 21-story office building at 1725 Tysons Blvd.

Though Lerner and his partners sold Tysons Corner Center in 1985, the mall remains indebted to them for putting Tysons on the map, according to Macerich Corp., which took over the shopping center in 2005.

Macerich Executive Vice President of Asset Management Cory Scott called Lerner “an early visionary and a consistent champion for Tysons” in a statement to FFXnow:

As the original developer of Tysons Corner Center and much of the central Tysons area, Tysons would not be what it is today without Ted Lerner’s vision, foresight, and determination. His impact on the development of the Tysons community and the region is tremendous and will continue to be felt in the future as this area grows and evolves. He wanted so much for his hometown, for it to be a winner on a variety of fronts (real estate, community, philanthropy, sports. More importantly, he and his family have given so much to the region. There aren’t many like Ted Lerner and he will certainly be missed.

Lerner Enterprises didn’t directly address its future direction in the wake of its founder’s passing, but it noted in a message that Lerner’s legacy will continue through his family, many members of which have leadership or advisory roles in the company.

“Mr. Lerner often remarked that he could never have imagined that his small company would reach such heights, and told friends and family that his life had exceeded his wildest expectations,” the developer said. “He will be greatly missed by all of us at Lerner.”