Louis Salomonsky had many sayings.
They were pearls of wisdom – some of them clichés, some of his own creation – that he didn’t hesitate to drop on family, business partners, competitors, politicians and whoever else was part of the constant stream of visitors stopping by his office in Shockoe Bottom for guidance.
But one of those axioms in particular seems to sum up how the prolific, polarizing developer navigated his six-decade career in real estate and, perhaps, life in general.
“He would say, ‘Never be afraid to die,’” Salomonsky’s eldest son Stephen recalled last week, shortly after his father’s death at age 84. “He wasn’t talking about dying and going to heaven. He was talking about the negotiating table.”
Since word of his Aug. 31 passing after a long battle with pancreatic cancer began to spread around Richmond last week, players in the local real estate world spanning multiple generations have recounted their experiences with Salomonsky and his influence on the industry.
Certain themes emerge from such conversations. Salomonsky was both revered and feared, sometimes in the same instance. He could put you in your place but also help you get to where you needed to go. Frugality on projects was a mantra of his, yet he was generous sometimes to a fault. He preached the virtue of hustle while showing how it’s done: his yearslong illness didn’t stop him from working, even in the final days of his life.
“A week up until he passed, he was still cutting deals that are two to three years into the future,” Stephen said.
From a hardscrabble childhood growing up along what is now Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Salomonsky became one of the region’s titans of development. Building off his architecture degree from UVA, he had a hand in the creation of thousands of apartments in the city over decades of work, particularly the last 30 years. He and his longtime business partner David White, through their company Historic Housing, were among the first in the region to see the promise of using historic tax credits to rehab the city’s old buildings into new uses.
They’ve since developed $750 million worth of projects, much of which they still own.
And while his creations still stand as a reminder of his work, it’s Salomonsky’s words that seem to have stuck with those who knew him.
Louis’s ‘pep talks’
For many in Richmond, Salomonsky was known publicly mainly for two things: his impact on the city’s built environment and his notorious prison stint in the early 2000s related to a bribery scandal involving a then-city councilmember.
But behind the scenes, he was a mentor to many, from governors to young developers to laborers.
“Over 30 years I saw a constant parade of people coming into his office seeking his advice,” said White, Salomonsky’s partner since the early 1990s. “Most of them were names you would recognize but some were people who were down on their luck.”
Seeking counsel from Salomonsky came with a price – he wasn’t going to sugarcoat things.
“One thing that often gets missed in a discussion of Louis was his unique blend of tough and tender,” White said. “We called that in the office Louis’s ‘pep talks.’”
Margaret Freund said she got plenty of such pep talks over the years as she sought Salomonsky out as a mentor while building her own development company, Fulton Hill Properties.
“To win that kind of relationship you had to be willing to let him show what his perspective was,” Freund said. “I think it was like, ‘Are you worth my time and energy to teach you? Can you sit here and take this?’”
Daniil Kleyman, an up-and-coming local developer in the Church Hill area, got to know Salomonsky in the last several years and found a source of “unfiltered” advice.
“I came to admire his sharp intellect, his depth of experience through multiple decades and real estate cycles, and his ability to always give it to you straight,” Kleyman said. “I can just say that Louis was definitely a straight shooter and wouldn’t hesitate to tell you if you’re being stupid.”
Yogi Singh recalls his first interactions with Salomonsky five or six years ago, when he and his business partners were striking out on their own to develop office space, apartments and other projects.
“It was like meeting The Godfather,” Singh said. “He was the one that single-handedly put his hand behind my back and pushed us forward. I think he recognized that he could do more good by forcing an education on me than just wishing me good luck on the next thing. He could pick up on when people needed that and that sometimes people don’t recognize they need that. That was one of his superpowers, amongst many.”
Sometimes the advice was unsolicited.
Jason Guillot, a principal at Thalhimer Realty Partners who’s leading the massive Diamond District project, recalled receiving a call from Salomonsky in early 2021, when Guillot was under construction on the redevelopment of the former Westhampton School property.
“Louis called me one day… he said, ‘I’m driving past your project on Patterson… you’re spending way too much money on that façade – you’re going to lose your ass if you don’t watch out,’” Guillot said.
“And then he went on to tell me about all the ways he would have designed it differently to achieve a similar look at a lower cost. While I may not have always agreed with his design critiques, there was always some nugget of wisdom he’d pass along,” Guillot said.
Randy Reynolds Jr., whose family developed Reynolds Crossing in Henrico County, also got such a call.
“He called me up one time and said, ‘Do you all work on Saturdays?’ I said, ‘Not normally,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to give you a reason.’”
Salomonsky then summoned the Reynoldses to their own office on a Saturday morning to tell them how he thought the vast parking lots at Reynolds Crossing were “wasted money” and offered to make better use of them.
“He came in harsh and hard, but he softened up later,” Reynolds said. “He wanted to test you and see what kind of person you are.”
Salomonsky’s kids – all seven of them – got a taste of it, too.
“He was tough on his children,” his son Stephen said. “Thank God he was, because we turned out well. He did test people. He wouldn’t make it easy. You don’t learn unless you go through the school of hard knocks, which was one of his cliché phrases.”
Salomonsky felt some of those hard knocks in the early 2000s, when he was sentenced to serve two years in federal prison in the highly publicized case involving bribes to City Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth.
Court records and reports from the time state the case was built by the FBI using an informant wearing a wire in an attempt to catch Salomonsky trying to buy Hedgepeth’s vote for Salomonsky’s preferred mayoral candidate for around $2,000. He ultimately pleaded guilty to the charges and was released in 2005.
“It was a horrible, horrible experience,” Stephen said of that time in his family’s life, adding that there’s far more to the story than what was reported 20 years ago.
Historic Housing was also affected.
“Obviously that was a major point in the history of the business,” White said. “We operated for a couple of years without him being involved. Some of the banking relationships were strained by that.”
But some good came from it, both during the sentence and after.
“He said many times that going to prison probably saved his life,” Stephen said. “He got into shape and it slowed him down. He came out much less aggressive. Most importantly, he wanted to restore his reputation and he worked very hard at that.”
Added White: “It calmed him down some. I don’t think you go off to prison and not be changed.”
Freund said the time she got to know Salomonsky best was after his prison stint. She said while he didn’t hide from that chapter of his life, he also made sure to move beyond it.
“That was one thing that people remember, but he was not that one thing,” she said. “He would want people to know that wasn’t what defined him.”
Up until the end
From the time he left prison up until the final week of his life, Salomonsky’s work on projects both current and future was constant.
His 12-story apartment tower at the former Weiman’s Bakery property in Shockoe Bottom is under construction to become the neighborhood’s tallest building.
Finishing touches on the last commercial spaces at The Icon, a redevelopment of the former Quality Inn & Suites property at 3200 W. Broad St. in Scott’s Addition, are underway.
In the past 12 months he began planning a high-rise residential tower at the southwest corner of Gaskins Road and Patterson Avenue, not far from his home in western Henrico County, as well as an addition to the Bacon Retirement Community in the Church Hill area.
From his bed at home during his last days, Salomonsky continued to take visitors and offer advice like always. Those visitors say discussions of development perked him up until the very end.
“I went out to see him two weeks ago and he did not look good. I mentioned an issue we had with a permanent lender and his head turned around and he started giving me pieces of information that I really had missed,” White said. “He did a calculation in his head and said we’ll end up with ‘X’ dollars in that deal and he was right. It was remarkable.”
Guillot experienced it as well during a visit last month.
“Despite his declining health, his mind was racing at 100 miles per hour about his current and future projects,” Guillot said. “His unending passion for solving complex challenges in development and finance was on full display.”
Freund visited him a week prior to his death and saw a similar jolt.
“They were keeping him comfortable and he just wanted to know about my deal out here (in Colorado),” she said. “I said, ‘Listen, I’ve done something you’d be really proud of and never could have done it without listening to you.’ He sat up and said, ‘Go get me a smoothie.’ His brain was working right up until the very end.”
And while younger developers like Guillot, Kleyman and Singh say they benefitted from knowing Salomonsky, there may well be yet another generation behind them carrying some of his wisdom into the business in the years to come.
Salomonsky in recent years took on an adjunct professor position at UVA teaching real estate to students in the university’s school of architecture.
It was evident to many that Salomonsky viewed the gig, while part-time and short-lived, as a crowning achievement.
“To be able to go back and teach his business to these kids… I dare say it might have been the highlight of his life,” Stephen said.
Randy Reynolds was invited by Salomonsky to give a guest lecture at one of his classes. He said Professor Salomonsky wanted him to teach the students about joint and several liability, meaning the budding architects could someday be held liable on the loans taken out by their developer clients.
It wasn’t the sort of theory-based work that’s typical of academia, Reynolds said.
“He was trying to show them the ways of the world,” Reynolds said. “He was a realistic type of guy and taught practical knowledge.”
Freund said Salomonsky also focused his courses on the costs related to building housing for mixed-income residents, another real-world sort of topic.
“He was committed to helping these young architecture students understand that if they want to do some good work in that housing space they have to learn from how things are going to cost and not just how pretty it’s going to be,” Freund said.
Singh said it’s no surprise Salomonsky found joy in the classroom after dropping knowledge from his Shockoe Bottom office all those years.
“It was always done with a sense of academic thinking and refinement, and he pushed us on that,” Singh said. “That’s the legacy he should be remembered for. He was the ultimate teacher.”