Executive Spotlight: Brian Leary, Crescent Communities

The power of built spaces has real pull for Brian Leary.
Brian Leary

The power of built spaces has real pull for Brian Leary. It drew him from architecture, toward real estate and development, where he worked for nearly 20 years in the Atlanta area. With the early vision for the massive Atlantic Station development, he played a role in shaping the city’s mixed-use future.

The vision for Atlantic Station was rooted in Leary’s transition from his early career path as an architect to a revised focus on development. While studying for a master’s degree in city planning at Georgia Tech, his thesis conceptualized a plan for the redevelopment of the historic Atlantic Steel Mill. The company’s closure left a 138-acre urban brownfield in Midtown Atlanta.

The Jacoby Group spearheaded the project (its current, third owner is North American Properties), and Leary was closely involved for more than 10 years.

“It’s a 12.5 million square foot mixed use project that’s about 40 percent built today,” Leary said. “We really should write a book or make a movie about it before all the work that went into it is forgotten.”

This fall, Leary left Atlanta for a new opportunity with Crescent Communities. He’ll be based in Charlotte, N.C., as he heads up the company’s Commercial and Mixed-Use division.

We spoke with Brian about what he’ll be working on at Crescent and more.

CPE: What brought you to Crescent Communities?

Leary: Crescent is one of those brands that is a consistent example of quality people, doing quality work, just first class in every regard. First and foremost, the opportunity to work at a company like that was something that definitely caught my eye. Also, the leadership of Todd Mansfield – who is the CEO of all of our business lines – presented an opportunity for me personally to continue to learn. One of the things that I really look forward to is getting better at what I do. Having Todd as a resource and a coach is definitely part of that.

To use an NFL metaphor, players want to go play for Bill Walsh because they know what it will do for their growth. That was part of the decision. The third factor is the team and portfolio that Todd has here on the commercial side.

CPE: Tell us about the existing Crescent commercial portfolio?

Leary: Crescent holds 600 acres of commercial and mixed-use property, both in urban and suburban core locations. Locations include Nashville, Charlotte metro, Orlando and Tampa right now.  We’re very bullish on the Southeast, which is growing. Cities like Nashville have a tremendous story, both in job and population growth. They know who they are, they’re impassioned about their sense of place, and offer very high quality of life with low cost of living.

CPE: What is Crescent’s philosophy around mixed use, which has been so key in your career?

Leary:  The future of commercial development is inherently mixed use. The future of multi-family (development) is actually also a good part mixed use because of the amenity component of retail. It really comes back to a fundamental challenge that the United States is facing in infrastructure and demography.

The most expensive thing I can do to move people between two places is to go buy land and build a road. The least expensive thing I can do is put them next door to each other. I think that as we start to see dollars for infrastructure funding become scarcer and scarcer, mixed use is going to be a necessity. At the same time, you’ve got the two largest generational cohorts in the history of the United States – the Baby Boomers and the Millennials – craving the same types of things: Walkable, urban places to live, work, play and stay. That’s the role and goal of our commercial and mixed use team.

CPE: What are some mixed-use hurdles that you’ve learned how to overcome?

Leary: True mixed-use projects are complicated. They can take longer and be more expensive. You’re doing it because your returns are greater or your ability to weather individual product cycles is a little better, potentially. At the same time, experience is a real key. Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do. I don’t know how a project could have been any more complicated than Atlantic Station, from the brownfield cleanup to the financing bonds we were marketing during 9-11, all kinds of challenges.

The key is not reinventing the wheel. There are many examples of great development, great mixed-use projects, and great city planning that we just need to pay attention to. Figure out what works and what doesn’t work and replicate the heck out of those things that succeed. There are also very few new problems that come up, and there’s probably even fewer new solutions. We just need to be smart about it. To the point specifically, just making sure you have the right team of architects, consultants, engineers and contractors can really save you time and money.

CPE: How’d you get into real estate?

Leary: In 1991, I was working in a large commercial architecture firm in Washington D.C. I suddenly realized that only two or three people were actually involved in the design side. That’s when I realized, “I want to be a client of a firm like this, not spend the next 20 years to get to the place where I can draw lines.”

I transitioned into the real estate business by putting together a master’s thesis in graduate school, which outlined the purchase, cleanup and redevelopment of a steel mill in Atlanta. The name of the master’s thesis was “Atlantic Station, A Place to Live, Work, and Play.” I started that in ’95, and was lucky enough to find the right guy to believe in that and hire me to do it. That was Jim Jacoby.

CPE: How would you describe yourself and your approach to your work?

Leary: I’m an extremely sincere person. I consider myself a consummate optimist – I think life’s too short to be anything but. I really do focus on being empathetic and empathetic to a potential partner’s business position, to a non-profit’s mission, to society in general. I’m engaged – I lock onto things. And I’m relentless. I don’t want to look back and say I could have done more.

CPE: What challenges have you overcome?

Leary: One challenge was when I went down to Atlanta, didn’t know anyone, and then really didn’t know anyone in the real estate business. But I was relentless, and knocked on the doors and pedaled my wares on this idea of buying a steel mill. Then I was able to work on an amazing project. It’s a short story, but I think that’s it. Everyone’s life has challenges that we have to get up every day and overcome. In general, I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world in that regard.

CPE: What inspires you?

Leary: Built places have a profound effect on me. The first time you turn the corner at Rockefeller Center and get a view of their ice rink, or you walk into Grand Central Station’s soaring vault, or even something as simple as walking up to the Airstream trailer in Seaside, Fla., where they sell hot dogs. I’m an urbanist, I like being in places created by architecture and the spaces in between. I’ve also seen the impact the built environment has had on people. My own projects, and visiting other places, and that’s what inspires me to better people’s lives with the places we build.

CPE: If you weren’t in real estate, what would you be doing?

Leary: I would love to teach. I taught for five or six years at Georgia Tech, in the evenings, and loved it. I would love to do that. Or, if I could afford it, I’d love to work on the non-profit side, helping causes. But I think teaching would be what I would come back to. I love the power of thought and seeing light bulbs go off and passions ignited in the classroom. It’s really powerful.

CPE: What causes or issues do you champion?

Leary: A board service that will stay with me for life is my time with Leadership Atlanta. It’s a first class organization with a first class leader. Through that lens you get the exposure and the opportunity to work on so many different causes whether it is homeless issues, public safety, or education.

In my opinion, the biggest predictor for stability or economic health is education. And while we have made tremendous strides in this country and have the foremost higher education system on the planet, there are a lot of folks who are left behind. That’s an area I’d like to continue to focus on. The ability to stabilize the education system is inherent in economic development. Cultivating talent, drive, and fostering innovation is how you drive economic activity and growth. I see it all connected to my business, so maybe I’m self-serving. But that is one area that I think is very important.