Anthony Lanier – the man who masterplanned Lisbon
After revitalising Georgetown in Washington, master-planner Anthony Lanier successfully revitalised Lisbon’s Principe Real district into an alternative, trendy and vibrant neighbourhood. But he warns that Lisbon’s boom is over.
Text and photos: Chris Graeme
Born in Brazil, raised in Vienna and married to a Portuguese wife with three grown children, Anthony Lanier is a visionary and, like Dick Whittington, the streets he treads really do seem to turn to gold.
The man who started a 30-year project to redevelop a rundown section of Georgetown, a historic entertainment district in Washington DC. pulled off the same trick in Lisbon, regenerating what 15 years ago was an abandoned and largely dilapidated neighbourhood into a thriving Bohemian community with trendy theme restaurants, artisan and handicraft shops and cocktail bars.
From King of Georgetown to Prince of Principe Real
Anthony Lanier didn’t just redevelop Georgetown and Principe Real, he was a true pioneer and visionary. His approach to urban regeneration rests on creating a sense of community and an environment with all the necessary amenities and services.
In the case of Washington, it was revitalised around the theme of ‘design’ and today he has been nicknamed the ‘King of Georgetown’.
In Principe Real, the district his company Eastbanc invested €100 million by buying up, restoring and adapting a string of mansions, Lanier is now the most important investor in the neighbourhood and one of the most important in Lisbon.
Lanier has been working with award-winning Portuguese architects such as Eduardo Sotto de Moura. He converted the moorish-style Ribeiro da Cunha palace into gin bar, boutique shops selling Portuguese handicraft leather goods and clothes, and a garden restaurant where the stables had been.
The entrepreneur has also turned his attention to other projects. Lanier has a software company in Russia and a sports platform focusing on squash. In fact, his daughter is a world squash champion who once brought Portugal to third position in the European championships.
The developer explains how his wife once asked him why he had to travel all the time as a developer when there were areas which needed “doing up” on their own backyard – In the case of both Georgetown and Lisbon he sees a need that he would like to experience in his free time, a restaurant, a sports club, a bar or a shop and sets about creating an environment for other budding entrepreneurs to start “a lot of businesses and amenities that I and other people like” and that is how Lanier got into urban revitalisation.
“We were lucky that Georgetown was the ‘murder capital of the world,’ no one wanted to live there, least of all that vicinity of T-shirts and bars. At the time Washington had a drinking age that was 18-years-old and the rest was 21. If you wanted to get ´stoned’ you went to Washington, particularly Georgetown where there were so many bars and that was what we were looking at” he says.
Lanier bought 70 buildings without any competition over two years, with credit, IOUs and the help of the sellers who wanted to get out of Georgetown.
Eastbanc applied that lesson in Lisbon. “I had always loved Lisbon. It is a city which is full of secrets. We stated with Lisbon for my first overseas project because my wife is Portuguese and we had visited so often and she loved the beaches,” he says.
Lanier began looking a real estate and convinced some German institutions that Portugal was overdue for a boom. The result was that Eastbanc bought up real estate safe in the knowledge that Lisbon would undergo a revitalisation.
“At that time the feeling was things couldn’t get worse. Lisbon was a city falling apart, rundown and very old” he noted. The time was ripe to buy and regenerate.
A little help from Madeleine Albright
Lanier noticed that Principe Real was in a key location, centrally positioned between the modern Amoreiras shopping and office district, the traditional and chic Baixa area and Portugal’s answer to the Champs Elysees – Avenida da Liberdade.
“I told a broker to buy property as though we’re buying shoes. Walk in, pay the money and walk out. But the process took longer than he had imagined. A well-known Portuguese family was competing for this building. I had difficulty communicating with the seller and I was doing it by text and trying to persuade him to take my offer.
One day, in the health club on the exercise bike Lanier found himself next to Madeleine Albright who by that time had written many books and memoirs. “We had the Ritz hotel in Washington and she suggested: “You need to buy some 300 books from me. One book for every room.”
I told her she needed to sign them. I bought them and told the hotel manager to put the signed books in the room. The manager thought I was crazy. As I was texting to try and buy this building, I opened one of these books and in ink it said: “Don’t be silly, José Luís, sell him the building! (signed) Madeleine Albright”. I took the book, sent it to him and he sold me the building!”
Lanier built a great team in Lisbon and offered low rents at his properties. We opened up all these mansions and every room was leased. I was warned by the Portuguese that if I did this, I’d never be able to get rid of the tenants.
“We found all these young entrepreneurs who wanted to open a store and we kept the rents low. Some stores went well, others not so. Nobody, however, lost huge amounts of money and today, 15 years after we started the project, Principe Real is a vibrant area”, he said.
Over that period many buildings were renovated, converted into residential apartments with other meaningful construction projects in Principe Real set to start this year and spanning the next three to four years to continue the neighbourhood’s upgrade. “Our aim is to try and make Principe Real the best place to live.”
In fact, Principe Real was voted the fifth best neighbourhood in the world by Time Out. Lanier says the project has proved to be a very successful and fulfilling business. “We know every one of our tenants and neighbours including the university, the friends of the botanical gardens and others who have signed up to help us to accomplish the project,” said Lanier.
Lanier stresses that Eastbanc is not the traditional antagonistic relationship between real estate entrepreneurs against neighbours, taking away apartments and creating short-term rentals that “push the locals out”. “We want everybody who lives in Principe Real to stay; we don’t want to replace them.”
“People think our success can be quantified in money, but our success is calculated in the excitement, in the rumours and the constant evolution going forward to making something better” he explained
Lanier says rent controls have to be seen from a philosophical standpoint. “As entrepreneurs we don’t make rules, we try and find ways to make money within the rules.”
The developer says that part of him is for rent controls which he agrees is a “social responsibility of sorts” which needs subsidies. “I would sooner have a government says: ‘you build, you know what you’re doing and we’ll give you some money to cover the shortfall that you are giving up in terms of your economic success’”.
“Looking at social housing in Lisbon and Germany, I think affordability in the housing market is a big deal and rental housing is important in Portugal.”
“We are reverting to rental in Portugal and the ability to own our own home is becoming more and more limited. “Do we even need to own or own home? My grandmother lived in a rental apartment in Manhattan. In Austria rental housing under rent control is common.”
“Real estate ownership is obsolete as an asset class, it is immobile in a mobile world and nobody wants long-term mortgages anymore. Everything is becoming faster and faster and real estate is unable to meet this demand. We don’t need offices, stores and houses the way we used to,” he believes.
If you hand over real estate ownership to professionals and you rent to companies like ours, we will provide constant services to make sure you are happy.”
The only reason people are buying real estate is because they think it will go up, but what if it doesn’t go up? This is the first time for a long period when real estate has not gone up. Some things I thought were worth 10 10 years ago today are only worth five.
Lanier points out that non-capital cities are building on the premise of cost + 20%. As costs go up, something very quickly thought of as reasonable suddenly costs a million dollars. “For that money you expect something specific, but there is no one left to build anything specific and there aren’t people who know how to do excellent labour anymore at a reasonable price, so the idea that you deliver something excellent is a fantasy. The business model is adversarial. Whatever we build in Lisbon, we will build to rent”, he said.
The planning permission process is completely unequipped with the “onslaught” of all the permits required. Lisbon, perhaps less so than many other cities, with two few people with the power to grant permits.
“Our gestation period is getting closer to 10 years. If you start planning a building today and it takes years to get planning, by the time you’ve got planning permission you have delivered an obsolete asset. Nobody in Lisbon is designing garages for electric cars. Yet the next car we are going to buy is likely be an electric one,” he said by way of example.
South of the River
Lanier believes that Lisbon’s south bank will be the next exciting development area but one that has to be tempered with the reality of booms and busts. Lisbon’s boom is coming to an end and we’re heading by definition to a bust. The south of the river must be a long term proposition,” he concluded.
Anthony Lanier was the guest speaker at an American Club of Lisbon lunch held at the prestigious Grémio Literário held on 17 September