Jim Abdo: A Truly Creative Developer
by Jessica White
Jim Abdo loves his job. But to hear him tell it, if he hadn't had student loans to pay off during the recession of 1982, the year he graduated from college, he would not be where he is today.
Abdo, 46, is the founder, president and CEO of Abdo Development. He specializes in converting unused, often dilapidated historic buildings into high-end residential housing. However, his restorations are a cut above the rest. He is not only about gutting a building and installing stainless steel appliances (although you will find them in every unit). He is about determining the unique features of the building, and how best to incorporate and accent those features to enhance the new construction and create dramatic, yet livable condominiums.
Abdo's early years did not lead straight to his becoming a real estate developer in Washington, DC. Abdo is the son of a Palestinian refugee who fled from the Middle East in 1948, when the State of Israel was created. His father studied engineering in Berkeley, California, where he met and married a woman from Ohio. His father served in the United States army during the Korean War - a “very proud American” said Abdo - and was stationed in Germany for a while before moving his family back to Ohio.“There were six of us in a bungalow. Pretty humble, but happy,” Abdo reminisced. In addition to Ohio, Abdo has relatives in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and he hopes to someday be able to visit the region with his brother. “Once, I had a consulting job in Cairo for a month and went to the Red Sea. I was supposed to go to the West Bank and Gaza, but the hotel I was staying in lost my passport, so I was unable to go” lamented Abdo.
Abdo attended The College of Wooster in Ohio, where he received his BA in sociology and history. His college years gave him his first encounter with historic preservation when he helped restore a post-Civil War era home in Ohio.” I was able to experience the high level of craftsmanship and integrity of historic homes,” Abdo stated, “and I developed a real affection for such projects,” he said. After graduating from college, he opened up a pizza shop, which he turned into a small chain of shops across South Carolina. “I needed to pay off student loans after I graduated. I came up with a concept for the pizza shop and implemented it,” he said of his first career. Ultimately, he sold the pizza shops, which provided the money for Abdo Development, which he founded in 1996.
“South Carolina offered me a place to start a business, but I knew I didn't want to stay there to raise a family. It served a purpose for a time, but I always knew I wanted more culture, more economic opportunities, and more exposure to the arts. I missed those advantages in South Carolina and I was never comfortable or at peace without them. DC gave me the perfect division of the seasons as well,” Abdo explained. “I love the light and space and volumetric space of DC,” he continued.
Abdo has completed many successful projects, including the Bryan School Lofts on 13th and Independence Aves, SE. His latest project is the conversion of the historic Children's Museum to 44 luxury condominiums. “The Children's Museum will be one of the neatest adaptive reuses of a historic building. One building will house the amenities -- a club room, concierge desk, theater room, conference room; the other building evolved over one and a half centuries. The Little Sisters of the Poor funded services there, expanding when money was available. It is a challenging adaptive reuse project, but also provides an opportunity for unique floor plans,” Abdo said.“There was a chapel with thirty-foot tall ceilings. It will be someone's residence and could be one of the best urban residences in DC,” he continued. Additionally, every unit will have outdoor space. One unit has “Romeo and Juliet” balconies; another has a large outdoor deck that wraps around a dining room, which juts out onto it; others have long balconies. Abdo also found catacomb brick structures in the basement that are being transformed into wine cellars for individual owners. In all, the Children's Museum will be turned into forty-four luxury condominium units.
Abdo has a philosophy behind selecting the buildings he decides to rehabilitate. “I believe in creating housing without displacing people. I target vacant buildings or buildings not designed for residential uses and convert them for residential use,” he explained.“There is a smart growth component with every project, forcing consumers to look towards the urban core. It is good for the environment, clean air, water and preservation of green space to live and work in the same area,” he continued. “I also relish the opportunity to incorporate adaptive reuse of historic preservation, and the Children's Museum is an example of that.
“I was raised to be respectful of my neighbors, so we never steamroll our ideas,” assured Adbo.
“I love Capitol Hill because of its true neighborhood feel, almost like nowhere else in the city. It has an eclectic mix of people who are passionate about where they live. There isn't that feeling of isolation like other parts of the city, and it is a lot cleaner than other areas. I think the residents must go out and pick up the trash,” said Abdo.
Abdo met his wife, Mai, who is originally from Vietnam, about six years ago. “I wanted to meet her and a friend got us together. We didn't care for each other at first; it evolved over time. She has a wonderful heart and is very upbeat and kind” They married four years ago and have two children, a daughter Sophie Mai and a son named Griffin. Until last year, a Weimaraner was part of the family.“She was seventeen years old when she died.” He and his wife are not quite in agreement about a replacement. “My wife wants a little dog; I want a bigger one,”Abdo said.
“I love what I do, and I love it that people are interested in what we're doing,” Abdo said of his company. From the look of things, we will have many, many more truly amazing projects to be interested in in the years to come.