Voice of the Hill
Developer With a Vision
Jim Abdo Moves His Midas Touch to the Hill
by Timur Loynab
The banner that drapes the side of the newly restored Bryan School building on 13th Street and Independence Avenue promises "real lofts."
The Bryan School project is the brainchild of Jim Abdo, the developer who's credited for Logan Circle's transformation from a sketchy, derelict neighborhood to an economically viable address that's now synonymous with urban chic. In his first Capitol Hill venture, Abdo hopes to bring his Midas touch to the Southeast neighborhood that will soon be known as Bryan Square.
The area, much like the century-old Bryan School itself, had long been neglected. Less than a decade ago, developers and homebuyers alike dismissed the neighborhood as an area unfeasible for investment. They were likely intimidated by the neighborhood's infamous reputation as a haven for drug-peddlers and the conspicuous presence of Section 8 housing. Even now, Abdo admits the area is a transitional one at best, but sees that changing once more people discover the value and relevance of the neighborhood.
"I love the neighborhood and saw its potential immediately," Abdo said. "But beyond the neighborhood, the building really spoke to me." What spoke to Abdo was the property's 40,000 square feet, its tall ceilings and dramatic windows--all of which are fundamental components to authentic loft living.
"This was an opportunity to do real, New York-style lofts, not McLofts, which there's an abundance of in this town," Abdo said. He's referring to the loft craze that's dominating the city's housing market and has developers, who are eager to turn a profit, jumping on the movement's bandwagon and scrambling to attach the word "loft" to their new condominium projects.
"A lot of people in town will just go in and take down a few walls and sort of create some horizontal living space and call it a loft, which I think is unfortunate," Abdo said. It certainly isn't fair to a lot of would-be buyers who are out there reading descriptions of 'lofts' and running to go visit an open house only to find an 8-foot ceiling with just an open room awaiting them."
But there's nothing dubious about Abdo's Capitol Hill project, said Ryall Smith of Coldwell Banker/ Pardoe Real Estate. "The Bryan School Lofts are the real deal," Smith said. Smith, an 18-year resident of Capitol Hill, is not only the listing agent for the Bryan lofts, but he's also among its newest purchasers. Smith said he was so impressed with the lofts that he decided to claim a unit for himself.
"It's sexy," he said. "For a lot of us it's a little bit of a change from the Victorian row house. It's got the industrial look, the amazing spaces of a big old SoHo factory that is just so rare here in the district."
Preservation and Innovation
The Bryan School Lofts, like many Adbo projects that now dot the city's landscape, marry two--potentially contentious, interests--historic preservation with edgy urban innovation. Abdo has, by most accounts, been able to strike a balance between the two, and, in the process, created a niche for himself in adaptive reuse projects.
"Jim understands the preservation law," said Steve Callcott, a preservation planner for the city. "He understands the preservation process. He looks at preservation not as a stumbling block--not merely as a process to get through--the way that some developers might, but as an important part of delivering a high-quality product."
It's the daunting challenge of saving an old property and discovering ways to make it useful again that stimulate Abdo's passion. "It's saving a landmark that I love more than anything else," he said. When Abdo started his company in 1996, well before the current renaissance in historic preservation, he saw what was happening in the city's housing market as a trend that needed to be reversed.
"I saw the nation's capital filled with distressed, vacant and abandoned housing," he said. "And it bothered me that the mindset at the time was to go outside of the city and continue to develop pristine green space and wetlands that would only contribute to more traffic problems and pollution. It didn't make sense to me when we had this abundance of housing stock that was beautiful housing stock--albeit distressed housing stock--right here in the city. So my plan was to go in and make this old stock viable again."
This responsible approach to development has made Abdo the darling of preservationists. Bryan's designation as a historic landmark precluded Abdo from making any substantive changes to the school's faÁade. His chief responsibility was to protect the faÁade and restore it fully. He met regularly with members of the DC Historic Preservation Office, including Callcott, and local community groups who had a stake in the restoration of the Bryan School.
"From the historical society's point of view, the exterior is the principal concern and they've shown a lot of respect for it," said Robert Nevitt, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. "There hasn't been use of materials like vinyl. The basic structure of the windows, the details of the façade look much as the original school building itself looked."
Going to School
Upon first glance of the school's façade--the beautifully restored brick, the stately columns, the signs indicating a "boys entrance" in the front of the school and a "girls entrance" in the back--it's difficult to envision anything but classrooms in the building. But while the exterior retains the character and integrity of a century-old school, the interior is an homage to state-of-the-art urban living. The before and after shots of the school are compelling. It's the stuff that makeover shows are made of.
Bryan had been abandoned for more than 25 years before Abdo and his crew began their painstaking restoration nearly a year ago. The brick was in such poor condition that it was more black than red. The inside of the building had become home to hordes of pigeons. "It had turned into a pigeon factory," Abdo said.
The Bryan School was purchased initially by another development company, Eakin/Youngentob Associates, who ultimately sold the school to Abdo and focused instead on constructing 38 new townhouses around the Bryan School Lofts that complete Bryan Square.
"Once they started peeling back the layers of the onion and looking at just how formidable of a task it was to take on this 40,000 square foot, 100-year-old building, they called me up," Abdo said. "I'm not going to say that they were intimidated by it, but it wasn't their realm of expertise," Abdo said.
Historic preservation isn't for the weak-hearted. "It's not so much that it's more difficult than new construction, it's that whenever you're working with an existing condition you don't always know what you're up against until you physically get into the building and find out what's there," Callcott said. "You'll assume that something is structurally sound or that you can upgrade a mechanical system in a certain way, but sometimes when you get into a building you'll find out that maybe the structural system isn't sound or maybe you can't snake through your duct work the way you assumed."
Taking a century-old school and converting it into something that it was never designed to be--lofts-- required a lot of fluidity on the part of Abdo's development team. For starters, Abdo reduced the number of lofts from 30 to 20. Although the building was approved and zoned for 30 units, once physically in the space, Abdo said he felt the interior scale of the project would have suffered had they gone with 30 units. While the decision dramatically shrunk his base of purchasers, Abdo said he refused to compromise on proportionality.
The safer, more profitable play would have been to do the most units, real estate agent Smith said, but "if you cram too many in, you just miss the big spaces. Jim believes in doing things the right way, regardless of cost," Smith said.
The crew also faced hurdles with the construction of the lower level of the building, where the school's auditorium and gymnasium once were. Last year's record rainfall raised serious concerns about ground water penetration in the lower-level units. The solution: Abdo's team duthe entire foundation of the school, down to the original footers, and installed a complete waterproofing system.
"I doubt anyone else would have gone to that extent, but for me, I want my owners to go there and say, 'Wow, I've got this spectacular ter-race-level unit with an outside patio, and it can rain 24 hours a day for a month and it's not going to matter," Abdo said.
Another challenge was incorporating an elevator into the building. The original structure didn't have an elevator, so Abdo and his team cut through the floors of the school, built a shaft and installed a hydraulic elevator system. Remaining sensitive to the exterior of the building, Abdo installed all mechanical systems inside the school.
"I didn't want to have this massive shaft sticking up out of the roof of the building," Abdo said. We were able to that by putting in what's called a hydraulic rope elevator that is silent pretty much for people inside the building, but also doesn't compromise the character of the building."
A Loyal Following
Abdo's refusal to cut corners and his attention to detail has earned him a loyal following, Smith said. Among the 15 units that have already sold, five of the purchasers are former Abdo property owners. One such client is John Caracappa, an attorney for the downtown firm Clifford Chance. Caracappa sold his Abdo condominium in Logan Circle last month. It sold the first day it was on the market. He moves into his new loft in Bryan on Feb. 27.
"I've been down there," Caracappa said. "I've looked at other town homes for sale around that area. I've spoken to Jim and I have the same good feeling about this property and this area that I had when I moved into Logan."
Caracappa said he couldn't resist the "character" of the Bryan School, its Capitol Hill location and, most importantly, the space. His loft has two bedrooms, two baths, a 32 feet long by 32 feet wide combination kitchen-living room-dining room, a 16-foot ceiling with exposed ductwork, eight 10-foot-tall custom made windows and an exposed brick wall.
"The loft really is for me the way to go because of the raw open space," Caracappa said. "The living and entertaining areas are huge, and for me, what I wanted in a condo was a large space to be able to entertain."
The amenities aren't too shabby either--including among many oth-ers--stainless-steel refrigerators and dishwashers; granite countertops; hardwood cherry floors; rooms wired for any electronic device in this galaxy; remote-controlled gas fireplaces; laser-leveled ceilings; dou-ble-insulated glass windows.
Editor's note: A profile on Jim Abdo, the man behind the Bryan School Lofts will appear in the Voice's March issue.
Timur Loynab is one of the Voice's regular contributors.