Thomas J. D’Alesandro IV probably could have been mayor of Baltimore if he had wanted the job. Instead, he came to the D.C. suburbs to build his own towns.
Mr. D’Alesandro, whose father and grandfather both served as mayors of Baltimore, rejected the family business of politics to become a real estate developer. Today, he runs the regional operation for Terrabrook, a national development firm.
Last week, Terrabrook hired the Porten Cos. of Rockville to begin building the first houses in Clarksburg Town Center, which will mix homes, shops, restaurants and offices on 268 acres in upper Montgomery County.
Mr. D’Alesandro perfected the formula for mixed-use projects when he guided Terrabrook’s development of Reston Town Center, which set the standard for the retro main street-style projects popping up throughout the region.
Reston made Mr. D’Alesandro, who turned 47 on April 4, one of the most respected developers in the D.C. area. The town center has lured big-ticket tenants like Accenture LLP from the District, and it has been praised by smart-growth supporters who like its environment-friendly design.
The mild-mannered Mr. D’Alesandro takes the praise in stride.
“We do a lot of research about what people say they want in their community. We work hard try to reflect their hopes in our planning,” he says.
Charm City childhood
Mr. D’Alesandro’s childhood in Baltimore shaped his ideas about what makes a community “functional.”
In the 1950s, he watched his grandfather plan new development in the city, including Charles Center, a complex of high-rise apartments and offices in the heart of Baltimore.
Later, when his father became mayor in the late 1960s, Mr. D’Alesandro watched him work to revitalize Baltimore’s waterfront area.
Mr. D’Alesandro wasn’t interested in the family business, despite being born into a Democratic dynasty that includes his father and grandfather, and his aunt, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.
“My grandfather loved politics. My father viewed public service as an honor, a duty. I didn’t have the same passion for it,” he says.
Mr. D’Alesandro’s father says he never really wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. “I never encouraged Tommy to go into politics. I didn’t discourage him, either. I wanted all my kids to pursue their own vocation,” he says.
Mr. D’Alesandro studied philosophy in college. In 1980, while pursuing a graduate degree in business, he took a summer internship at Mobil Land Development Corp., a division of oil giant Mobil Corp. that built planned communities across the country.
His internship gave him a chance to work on plans for one of the company’s signature projects, Reston, about 18 miles west of the District in western Fairfax County. Mr. D’Alesandro says the idea of building a city from scratch excited him.
“It struck me as a very comfortable place. I understood the vision,” he says.
Eventually, he took a full-time job with Mobil. After the first phase of Reston Town Center opened in 1990, Mr. D’Alesandro went to work on other projects across the country, including a long stint in Atlanta.
In 1996, Mobil sold its land-development business to another firm, which Terrabrook acquired in 1997.
Terrabrook asked Mr. D’Alesandro to stay on board. The company shipped him back to Reston, which was beginning to boom, thanks to the region’s economic revival.
Within months of his return, Anderson Consulting signed on as the lead tenant in One Freedom Square, the first office tower in Reston. The company, now known as Accenture LLP, moved to the town center from the District, where its local operation had been based for years.
“It was a turning point for town center,” Mr. D’Alesandro says.
“Before town center, Tysons Corner was the destination of choice in Northern Virginia. After Anderson, Reston emerged as equal to or better than Tysons. That’s a major change.”
Running Terrabrook’s eastern operation keeps Mr. D’Alesandro busy. In addition to developing the Reston and Clarksburg town centers, he is also building Broadlands, a big mixed-use community in Loudoun County.
The elder Mr. D’Alesandro says his son is never frazzled, in spite of his busy schedule. “What you see with Tommy is what you get. He is a very smart guy. He always sees the big picture,” the father says.
Sitting with a reporter in his Reston office a rustic, cabin-style building overlooking a lake Mr. D’Alesandro is soft-spoken and thoughtful, raising his voice only when the subject turns back to the town center concept he helped pioneer.
His eyes widen as he recalls his work to secure “the right mix” of tenants for Reston Town Center.
Terrabrook’s goal was to create an upscale community, and Mr. D’Alesandro set out early to bring in restaurants like Clyde’s and office tenants like D.C. law firm Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, which plans to lease space in Two Freedom Square, a second office tower under construction.
“My job is to interpret the master plan. The challenge becomes how do you take the rough guidelines laid out in the 1960s and find the right ingredients?” he says.
Mr. D’Alesandro seems to have hit the right recipe: When Washingtonian magazine published its annual list of the best places to live in the D.C. area last year, Reston was the only community outside the Beltway included. The list also featured Bethesda, Capitol Hill and Alexandria.
Environmentalists like what the town center represents.
“I think we see in Reston Town Center the future of how the suburbs should look,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, an umbrella organization for local environmental groups.
The town center has given Fairfax County a much-needed downtown area, he says. The only thing missing is a transit line, although local business leaders are lobbying for a Metrorail extension through Reston.
Terrabrook’s project in Clarksburg presents Mr. D’Alesandro with a different challenge.
Clarksburg was founded in the 1700s. It was one of the largest towns in Montgomery County, but the construction of a railroad and Interstate 270 helped drive residents away. It has been largely isolated since the 1950s.
The plan for the project calls for 1,300 houses, apartments and townhouses, and 250,000 square feet of commercial space. Parkland, a softball diamond, a soccer field and a fishing pond are also slated.
Terrabrook will also preserve the land where the county has proposed building a light rail line to connect Clarksburg to neighboring communities with mass transit.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, says “careful planning” by Terrabrook will be the project’s hallmark.
“[It] will meet the growing residential, retail and office needs of the area, while preserving much of the rural landscape and small-town charm that has become synonymous with Clarksburg,” he says.
Hiring the Porten Cos. last week to begin building the first 23 single-family detached houses in the town center is key, Mr. D’Alesandro says, because it means construction can begin this year.
Although he is credited with helping popularize the town center-style development in the D.C. area, Mr. D’Alesandro and his family live in a more traditional suburban neighborhood in Herndon.
But he doesn’t rule out moving at some point to one of his projects or one of the many town centers popping up in the region.
For example, he says he is impressed by the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring and the Mazza Gallery development in Northwest D.C. He also likes the planned Potomac Yard housing-and-business project in Arlington and Alexandria.
What he doesn’t like is when developers “unfairly” compare their projects to Reston Town Center. He recalls a recent meeting he attended where a builder described a project as “another” Reston Town Center.
“I thought to myself, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Mr. D’Alesandro says.
His diplomatic approach to his imitators may show Mr. D’Alesandro has a flair for politics after all. It’s a suggestion he doesn’t deny.
“When you get involved in land development, you get involved in politics,” he says.
Thomas J. D’Alesandro IV, vice president and eastern region manager, Terrabrook
Family: Married with four children
Hobbies: Reading philosophy, watching movies, hiking
Quote: “We do a lot of research about what people say they want in their community. We work hard try to reflect their hopes in our planning.”