Development Manager Kaleena Lee’s Interview with Washington Business Journal

Kaleena Francis Lee has grown up along with Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners. She called the firm on a whim as a college student at American University. Fourteen years later, she is the development manager behind the 2016 delivery of Anthology apartments on H Street NE and the in-progress 1250 Half St. SE, a 460,000 square foot mixed-use project which she hopes will cement the Capitol Riverfront as D.C.’s entertainment district.

Lee has also guided some important District projects as a third-party developer. Among them: the headquarters relocation of the United Negro College Fund and the massive renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

You started at Jair Lynch as a college student and have worked your way into a leadership position. What led you here? My family’s longtime family friend hired me as an office assistant for his land surveying firm. Unfortunately, I didn’t last the summer before he recognized that I was spending way more time in the field than at my desk. I was eager to be out in the field and being hands on, but he hired me for office help that I was not taking seriously. He kindly suggested that I try a firm more adaptable to my overeagerness and gave me Jair’s card.

What did you learn from that? It was a very good lesson to learn early. You must do the job you are hired to do first, before you can do the job you want to do. It was another year before I had the guts to call Jair Lynch and try again. And when I began as their intern, over 14 years ago, I was still very eager, but this time more focused. I still have the offer letter stating all the development activities I would participate in, and it’s simply remarkable how much I have grown.

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? An environmental lawyer. I was going to go to law school and then work for the Environmental Protection Agency, then work my way up to a judgeship and the Supreme Court.

What would you say to someone who wants a career in development? You need passion. I knew I liked environmental science. I enjoy that intersection of the sciences, and that leads into development really well. You have the law, you have community interaction, the spaces and how people are affected by it. Because I have been at the company so long, I have seen most projects start to finish. I think I am really good at weighing the facts, choices, making a plan, executing the plan.

Is it challenging to be a woman in development? There are more women than there used to be when I started. When I first started, I didn’t see any women like me – not just of color, but any women. Now I go to Commercial Real Estate Women network events or Bisnow events and meet lots of women. I think it is not something people talk about when you are young, as in, “I am going to be a developer.” They talk about being a doctor or a lawyer.

Now you are working on 1250 Half. How will that contribute to the Capitol Riverfront? I remember when Nationals Park opened in 2008. We had season passes, we were all excited about it. But I also remember how different the community was. It is begging to find its own character, its own authentic vibe. Half Street is finding its niche. We want the character to be an entertainment zone. “There is no offseason” is going to be the tagline for the building. We are bringing in PunchBowl Social and we want other tenants to do the same kind of thing. We are excited about having true placemaking on that block.

Where can we find you when you’re not working? You can find me at brunch. I love walking in the National Arboretum. I recently took a sabbatical and went to Asia: Tokyo, Thailand and Malaysia.

Were you looking at Asia like a developer? Yes. Tokyo was very boxy but more visually interesting than I thought it would be. Malaysia had a lot of malls because it is really hot there. I was inspired by the nature of Thailand, the eco resorts and how they bring the outside in.