Q&A with Peter Smirniotopoulos, Author of Real Estate Law: Fundamentals for The Development Process

Peter Smirniotopoulos, author of Real Estate Law: Fundamentals for The Development Process, discusses his recently published book and the experiences that led him to it.

Please introduce yourself, what is your academic and professional background?

I am Adjunct Professor of Real Estate and Urbanism at The George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., and the George Mason University School of Business in Fairfax, Virginia. I teach a variety of 300 and 400-level courses at George Mason on real estate development and finance and teach my real estate law course in the Real Estate concentration in GW’s MBA program. I have taught in real estate graduate programs in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area since joining the Real Estate Program faculty at Johns Hopkins University in 1999. I have also taught professional development and executive education workshops, led multi-day professional training programs, and spoken at industry conferences since 1985. I have published extensively on The Huffington Post, the New Geography, and LinkedIn Pulse, as well as in a variety of professional journals and industry periodicals like Urban Land, on a broad range of topics in commercial real estate development and finance, urbanism, and housing and education policy.

I hold a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown College in public administration and a juris doctorate from the Georgetown University Law Center. For more than 35 years I’ve held various positions of responsibility in the private and public sectors in real estate, including creating a real estate practice group in a law firm I helped found in Washington, D.C.; serving as a senior official in a redevelopment authority, which included running the authority’s Tax Exempt Bond Program; serving as a senior executive for a national company pioneering the workforce housing industry; and founding and running petersgroup consulting, a national consulting practice focused on public, workforce, and mixed-income housing development and management, as well as community revitalization and urban regeneration programs and initiatives, which continues to this day.

What motivated you to writing Real Estate Law?

In late 2012, I was asked by my alma mater, Georgetown University, to take over the real estate law course being taught in the master’s in real estate program (MPRE) in the School of Continuing Studies. I had previously taught a number of different courses in the Johns Hopkins Real Estate Program but never taught real estate law before. Rather than simply adopting the existing MPRE syllabus, which I thought unnecessarily technical for a masters in real estate program, I started from scratch, giving careful consideration to the question: “What does a real estate development or finance executive need to know about real estate law to be effective in their position and on the projects in which they will be involved?” This deliberative process gave rise to a unique approach to teaching real estate law to students who are not in law school. As I often remark to groups of incoming students, if you want to become truly conversant in real estate law, go to law school; after graduation land a job in a highly regarded law firm with an active real estate practice; and work in that practice group for ten or more years. However, real estate development and finance executives don’t need to be real estate lawyers; they need to have a comprehensive and deep understanding of real estate law, and know when and how to hire a real estate lawyer. Once I was convinced I had devised the best approach to teaching real estate law to real estate masters and MBA candidates, I had one more obstacle to overcome: There were no real estate law textbooks supporting this unique approach to teaching real estate law. I had to make do with what was available: Textbooks designed either for law schools or paralegal programs. When Routledge approached me to write a textbook based on my course, I jumped at the chance; I needed to research and write my own textbook. This textbook reflects almost four years of the evolution and refinement of my approach to teaching the subject matter to graduate students (and, soon, to undergraduate students at George Mason University, as well), and the process of creating the textbook has refined and improved the course.

Can you describe the book in one sentence?

This textbook brings real estate law to life, in context, in an interesting and compelling way, making the material much more easily comprehensible, thereby demystifying The Development Process.

Who would be interested in reading your book and what do you hope resonates with the reader?

Anyone who has an interest in the built environment around them—who is curious about the who’s, what’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s of our cities and suburbs, and the places in which they live, work, shop, and recreate—whether an undergraduate or master’s student in a real estate program, a government official, a real estate executive, an investment banker, a lender, or merely an engaged citizen who wants to be better informed about development, will benefit from this book. I hope what resonates most with readers of this book is that The Development Process is just as fascinating and intriguing as their favorite dramatic series (think Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or Downton Abbey), with plenty of interesting characters having divergent and sometimes opposing interests, with disparate resources to devote to the process, and allies and rivals all seeking to achieve their respective goals. That is the gauntlet through which every development project must pass.

What makes your book stand out from its competitors?

This textbook is engaging and readable. Even without the benefit of using it in the context of a graduate or undergraduate course, a diligent reader could learn a considerable amount about The Development Process by simply reading this textbook and thoughtfully applying the material to the built environment around them.

What one piece of advice would you give to students studying Real Estate today?

Real estate development and finance is an enormously complex process: The details always matter. To be successful in real estate development and finance, students need to have and maintain a 30,000-foot view of things (aka “the big picture”), while also paying close attention to the minutia. In the final analysis, real estate development and finance are fundamentally about problem-solving.

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself.

Fundamentally, I think of myself as a teacher and writer, although it took me decades following graduation from Georgetown Law to come to this realization. However, on reflection, I probably should have been an artist—a furniture designer/maker, custom builder, metal sculptor or perhaps a musician—as a full time avocation, because I have a deep desire and need to design and create things. I revered and respected art and artists from a very early age but didn’t recognize my own passion for things like architecture and design, drawing, painting, and sculpture until after I had graduated from law school.

My parents were both professionals (my father was an official in the Greek Embassy; my mother was a medical doctor) so there was considerable pressure not only to go to college after high school but also professional school. I had no social context or educational background for architecture as a profession, for example, so it just wasn’t on my radar screen in college; the arts were not favorably viewed as a career choice. I have devoted considerable time to satisfying my creative passions indirectly--for example, founding Del Ray Artisans Center in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1992, and serving as a Founding Director and executive officer of the Washington Architectural Forum in Washington, D.C.—as well as directly, having designed and implemented the complete renovation of my wife’s and my first home, in Alexandria’s Del Ray community, including building a woodworking studio from the ground up and designing all of the built-ins; more recently, I have made substantial renovation to our current home in Falls Church, Virginia.

Overall I have spent less time than I would have liked actually designing and making things. So, perhaps this will be my next career move: Designer and functional artist. I do, however, think of my real estate law course and new textbook--Real Estate Law: Fundamentals for The Development Process (Routledge, NOV 2016)--as an act of creation.