By Debra Gelbart
Commercial broker Michael Lieb wasn’t quite sure what to make of the lady running out to greet him wearing a towel.
It was 1995 and he was trying to convince one of 30 homeowners to sell his property so that a developer could build a commercial project at Scottsdale and Thomas Roads.
“I had nearly all of the other residential properties in escrow,” he says, “but this one homeowner wouldn’t talk to me.”
So Lieb went directly to the residence to plead his case one more time, and the homeowner literally ran away from him. Lieb started to leave the property, dejected, when “a lady came outside in a towel. ‘I own half this house,’ she said, ‘and I wanna hear what you have to say.’”
Lieb was able to get all the agreements he needed and the development proceeded.
Most of his work isn’t that dramatic, but Lieb, 52, is willing to do almost anything to close a deal, which he has been doing successfully for nearly three decades. He’s known as the “king of infill” because of how he’s able to put together agreements to redevelop desirable locations around the Valley into multifamily projects or mixed-use multifamily and office ventures.
“I’m a hybrid,” he says, referring to the fact that he not only brokers deals, he buys land and sells it to builders or developers—including several tracts of land at Tatum Boulevard and Greenway Road that he’s selling to KB Home. “I handle everything, from the acquisitions, entitlements and negotiations with the builders.”
For 20 years he has concentrated on brokering deals for apartments, condominium and townhome developers.
He grew up in Atlanta and permanently moved to the Valley after graduating from Arizona State University.
“The quality of life here is off the charts,” he says. “We’ve become a very diverse town from a business standpoint and it’s also a great place to raise a family.”
Lieb gravitated toward multifamily, he explains, because “it’s very entrepreneurial and the infill sites aren’t typical 15-acre farmland. There’s usually three to four buildings that need to be torn down and new zoning is often required.” The task demands creativity, he says. “That’s how I built my business.”
During the recession, he says, homebuilders began adding higher-density products, so Lieb worked with many of them, too.
“I found infill sites for them,” he says, “for what the builders called ‘mini urban master plans.’”
Multifamily, he says, has recovered from the recession. He has closed 20 deals in 24 months (see box for details). That wasn’t the case when he started out. His first project was getting plans for an office building at 18th Street and Glendale Avenue in Phoenix approved by the Phoenix Planning Commission. The neighbors opposed the project but Lieb persevered, going door to door to convince them to change their minds. He and his team got the project zoned and he was thrilled, but he learned a very valuable lesson. He learned not to count on a commission until the process is complete. The developer of that project couldn’t get financing and the deal never closed escrow.
He also learned that he’s good at assembling a deal.
“I knew I could create sites,” he says. “I would say to a developer, ‘If I could put this together, would you buy it?’”
Throughout his career as a broker, he has always been self-employed.
“I never fit the mold of a big-brokerage-firm suit-and-tie kind of person,” he says. Besides, he says, “the political stuff I’ve been involved in wouldn’t be the right fit for big brokerage houses.”
He was part of former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson’s campaign in 1993; Johnson, who ran unopposed, won the election with nearly 100 percent of the vote. Since then, he’s served on lots of municipal boards—including the Phoenix Board of Adjustment (which hears zoning appeals), the Phoenix Aviation Board and, currently, the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board—as a way to give back to the community.
He also has quite a real estate legacy. In 2002, he worked with the Phoenix Community Alliance and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership to buy as many as 90 houses in downtown Phoenix to clear the way for a prospective Arizona Cardinals Stadium.
“I made sure that the contracts to buy those homes included the option to buy even if the Cardinals stadium went to another city,” he recalls.
When the decision was made to build the stadium in Glendale, Lieb convinced Phoenix leaders to buy the land anyway. Today, that land is home to the nationally renowned Phoenix Biomedical Campus, which includes the Phoenix location of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, TGen, the International Genomics Consortium and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, among other bioscience luminaries.
He loves the entrepreneurial spirit of the real estate business but strives to maintain balance in his life, with his grown children Stephanie, 25, and Jeffrey, 22.
“I’ve seen people become really, really successful in this business but neglect their family,” he says. “They have money but not happiness. If you can’t balance your work life with family, friend and fun, what are you in it for?”
These are just some of the deals Michael Lieb has brokered in the past two years:
- Oliver McMillen of San Diego, the original developer of the Gaslamp District, is planning to build 265 luxury apartments at Tempe Town Lake. The $5 million deal closed escrow in April of this year.
- NWC of Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road sold for $10.24 million to Alliance Residential, which will build 264 luxury apartment units.
- Archstone, a Colorado apartment developer, closed on land in January of this year to build 398 apartments in Chandler in a $3.2 million deal.
- The Borgata in Scottsdale was sold for $12.75 million to Avatar Holdings, which plans to demolish the existing shopping center and develop approximately 220 luxury senior residences.
- The former Fiddlesticks Family Fun Park in Tempe sold for $6 million to Mark Taylor, which will build 384 residential units in two- and three-story buildings.
- A former LA Fitness location at Scottsdale and Curry Roads will become the site of a 240-unit luxury apartment lifestyle development. The 8.23-acre site was sold for $8 million to Archstone.
- National apartment developers Wood Partners will rezone the site of the former Rural Metro office building on the NEC of Indian School and Granite Reef Road in Scottsdale for 260 apartment units. Wood is paying $5.5 million for the 5.6 acre site.