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The Downtowner
July - August 2005

Jim Abdo–Preserving the Integrity of the Old
By Alex Chip

When completed next year, the restoration and condo conversion of the old children’s museum will give a big boost to the “H Street Renaissance.” Minutes away from Union Station and home to lofts boasting 10-20 foot ceilings and tremendous natural lighting, the Landmark Lofts at Senate Square should be the new “place to live” on Capital Hill. The Logan Hardware store at 14th and P began with an idea and a favor. Gina Schaefer walked into a developer’s office with a business plan and asked him to turn away credit tenants from his property, renovate it, and take a chance on her dream. And for Gina and her husband/store co-owner Marc, who insisted on keeping the ancient hardwood floors, that developer provided a fresh and unique space while “keeping the integrity of the old store.”

What do the two of these projects have in common? Abdo Development.
Jim Abdo exhibited his entrepreneurial inclinations at an early age, trudging through his Ohio neighborhood with a lawn mower in the spring and summer, a rake in the fall, and a snow shovel in the winter. Before you even noticed the chipping flakes on your fence, he was at your door with a can of paint and a smile. He carved a niche for himself in the local economy as the preteen labor maven.

A high school and college education (and numerous small jobs and enterprises) later, he opened his first business, a pizza shop called Sharky’s in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He picked Hilton Head because he “couldn’t find a good slice in town.” He didn’t have the money for an apartment so he slept in the back of the shop, using the public beach showers to wash up. The one shop led to more shops, which led to his involvement in construction and development. He incorporated his company, Abdo Development, in 1996, and has completed over 30 projects within the city. Despite his success and the numerous awards he has won, he can still shake your hand, look you in the eye, and convince you that he hasn’t forgotten his “humble beginnings.”

Abdo’s office is a model of his development strategy. High ceilings crisscrossed with wooden beams and exposed ductwork open up space soaked in bright light streaming through the tall windows. A wall in the conference room soars up from the hardwood floors and boasts a montage of framed newspaper and magazine articles applauding Abdo’s unique buildings. But more than the interior design, the office’s location and neighborhood define Abdo as a developer.

About five years ago, Jim Abdo had the opportunity to buy up a block of property at Rhode Island and 14th Street that nobody wanted. Just as he had done at pizza shop-less Hilton Head years before, Abdo took the opportunity and the risk. He bought the property, denied 7-11 the right to re-up their lease because, although they offered to pay him more money, he was “tired of watching them let people use their dumpster as a bathroom and the street as a dumpster.”

This was the start of a tradition for Abdo: turning down the big money, secure credit tenants who would never be short on a payment, but who didn’t have the same stake in the community as individual owners. The block of property became an office for Abdo, a dry cleaner for Sounhi Rhue, a hardware store for Gina and Marc. There was a risk in taking on such unglamorous tenants, but the reward was a real community. As it states on the Logan Hardware Web site, “we’re not just store owners, we’re neighbors too.”

Part of being a community means building on its past, not tearing it down. Abdo Development has earned recognition doing just that, and recently received the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. The conversion of the Historic Bryan School to luxury lofts in particular earned Abdo tremendous praise, admirers pointing out preserved details like the separate boy’s and girl’s entrances and the bolts in the floor where desks had sat. A chalk board even remains in one unit.

But maintaining historical features doesn’t force Abdo to compromise the integrity of his design. Each loft uses space and light to provide a completely unique environment that astounds residents who had seen the building pre-Abdo. One prospective buyer compares the before and after pictures for Abdo’s buildings to those of Anna Nicole Smith on the TrimSpa commercials.

The success of the Bryan School lofts has created optimism and buzz about the H Street project. Many buyers and developers are eager to see what Abdo can do with the 130-year old building that served as a home for the Little Sisters of the Poor and then as the Children’s Museum. What a shame it would have been to tear down a building so intrinsically Washingtonian in its cultural diversity and rich historical value. And the new lofts within the renovated building, along with the other condos shooting up all over downtown Washington, will keep more tax dollars in the district, which will benefit projects like the new children’s museum at L’Enfant Plaza.

The revitalization of Washington is a very important endeavor, and one that should and will move forward. Some Washingtonians have become mistrustful of the city’s “progress,” as if we might one day wake up to a version of Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World.” Admittedly, if officials are not careful about which and how many big name tenants set root, some neighborhoods could end up, as Abdo puts it, “looking like the inside of a mall.” Which is exactly why it so imperative that we preserve as much of the old city as possible, to help us remember our “humble beginnings.” Like Gina and Marc getting a fresh start in their hardware store, Washington, D.C. will find hope in the new, but developers like Jim Abdo will ensure that it keeps “the integrity of the old.”