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Washington Post
July 26, 1999

Logan Comes Full Circle; A Booming Economy and Developers such as Jim Abdo have Helped Bring the Area Back to Life
by Daniela Deane Washington Post staff writer

 

When Jim Abdo sees a dilapidated crack house anywhere around Logan Circle, his eyes light up.

And his mind starts buzzing. Buy it. Preserve and restore the historical details. Gut the rest and turn it into high-end condominiums.

Abdo, a 39-year-old developer from Kent, Ohio, has made it his mission to revitalize the distressed area around Logan Circle in Northwest Washington. And make money doing it.

So far, his plan seems to be working.

In just a little more than three years, District-based Abdo Development, owned solely by the entrepreneurial Abdo, has restored 11 historic buildings around Dupont and Logan circles, mostly old brownstones, turning them into airy, light-filled luxury apartment buildings.

And Abdo Development's rise coincides with the comeback of Logan Circle itself. Abdo and other developers realized the area's potential a few years ago, and through their investments they have helped bring the elegant ring of Victorian houses back from the criminal underworld of prostitution and drug dealing that had taken over the circle. And although Logan Circle is not yet the fashionable address it was when Ulysses S. Grant's son built a house there in the late 19th century, it is also no longer the prostitute pickup place and drug supermarket it was just a few years ago.

"On Saturday, I was out with neighbors," said Connie Maffin, who has lived on Vermont Avenue near the circle with her husband for 25 years. "There was a fellow with Pennsylvania plates, cruising round and round the circle. But there wasn't a girl to be found." Just a few years ago, the guy from Pennsylvania would have had no trouble at all finding what he was looking for.

"The nation's booming economy is the driving force behind everything," said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "There's also been a major change in the perception of the city with the election of the new mayor. And then there's also the realization that suburban living is not what it's cracked up to be."

When Logan Circle was built, its huge Victorian town houses were the elegant homes of the city's post-Civil War wealthy. It stayed middle class, although not much renovation was done, throughout the Depression era and the World War II years.

In the 1950s, when much of America's middle class started moving to the suburbs, Logan Circle began its decades-long decline. After the D.C. riots in 1968, the circle was left more than half-vacant. Prostitutes and drug dealers then moved into the vacant lots and rooming houses.

Reclamation of the area has gone in fits and starts since the 1970s. There was activity in the late 1970s, after the circle was declared a historic district, but spiraling interest rates put an end to that.

The boom years of the 1980s saw another development spurt, which was dampened by the housing bust of the early '90s. The city's current sizzling housing market has brought another wave of development to Logan Circle. And now, many residents say, Logan Circle's time has finally come.

"It should've happened earlier," said Maffin, who is also a real estate agent for Pardoe ERA in the District. "But there was just so much to do."

"If there is an economic downturn, we could trend downward along with everyone else," she said. "But it's just so solid now, it couldn't go back."

"There are changes going on in Logan Circle now that I haven't seen in 20 years," said council member Evans. He cited "the filling in of the vacant lots on the circle itself" as evidence of the changing character of the area. PN Hoffman Inc., a Bethesda developer, is building a 14-unit condominium building on what was a vacant lot on the circle's southeast corner.

"If you would've asked someone even three years ago if those lots would ever have been built on, the answer would've been no," Evans said.

The supervisor at the PN Hoffman building site said that just a few years ago, when the company also refurbished Nos. 1 and 2 Logan Circle, Grant's old house, prostitutes on the circle were commonplace.

"When I was on that job," said supervisor Mark Kreese, "I used to see them walking home in the morning after work at about 6:30 a.m. Now, in the morning, it's all people walking their dogs." Homeless people still hang out at Logan Circle during the day, as they do in many other D.C. plazas.

What attracts people to Logan Circle, developers and buyers alike, is its historical grace -- and its convenient location.

The circle, considered one of the finest showcases of Victorian architecture in the District, is within walking distance of five Metro stops and is a quick stroll away from Dupont Circle, the restaurants on 17th Street and the downtown business area.

But it's the history that turns Abdo on -- and makes him money.

He guts the old buildings, tears down as many walls as possible and installs huge windows. He acid-washes the fronts, refurbishing the worn-out facades.

He tries to restore all historical touches. But in his kitchens, he puts top-end appliances and granite counters. And in his bathrooms, Italian tile. Closets also abound.

"His apartments are just so beautiful," said client Faye Hale. "You're in an old building, but everything is modern inside. It's the best of both worlds."

Abdo handpicks the buildings himself, searching always for distressed houses (they're cheaper) with Victorian facades and historic detailing, such as "butter" joints, where there is only very thin mortar between the bricks.

He doesn't want houses where the owner has put in a new kitchen, hoping to get a better price for it. He wants dilapidated and abandoned houses, since he's planning on starting over anyway, perhaps keeping just an old pocket door here or a wooden mantel there.

Abdo's number two, Ken Bice, a local builder, works on site and supervises the labor. Abdo has also hired three previously unemployed men from the Logan Circle area, one of whom was living on the street before he got a job as a laborer.

Although he declines to reveal his profits, Abdo says his company will bring in $6 million this fiscal year, with three condo developments coming to market as well as rental revenue received from 40 deluxe apartments the company owns.

Before coming to Washington in 1991, Abdo owned a chain of open-plan pizza restaurants in South Carolina called Sharky's. He sold three of the restaurants and used the profit to start his D.C. development business.

When he first arrived here, he worked briefly as a reporter at USA Radio News covering the Pentagon during the Gulf War before turning his hand to restoring historic buildings, an endeavor he now calls his "true love." Although he had no building experience, he had successfully used the open-plan formula in his South Carolina restaurants.

"I am really bullish on the District," Abdo said. "It's like a wave. And we're only at the base of it. We're still far from the crest."

Abdo's current project is 16 Logan Circle, an elegant 10,000-square-foot mansion that is the only free-standing house on the circle. He's finishing six condominiums there that are selling for up to $575,000. Three are still for sale. Abdo bought the Victorian house for $400,000 and then spent well over $1 million restoring it. The total sales price for the six condos, two of which are basement units, will be about $2.5 million.

The house, typical of an Abdo redo, was in complete disrepair. Originally built in 1879 by a former D.C. commissioner, it had become the low-budget Cadillac Hotel and later a rooming house where, neighbors say, prostitutes and their johns used to hang out.

"Lots of people have come by telling us, `You can't believe what used to happen in here,' " said Bice.

The company's first project, 1736 19th St., was an 1890s brownstone that had become a flophouse. Abdo lives in the building's stunning open-plan penthouse apartment, which has a loft bedroom; a fancy new kitchen with cherry cabinets, granite counters and black appliances; and a large side terrace overlooking the historic street, which Abdo calls his "favorite street in the District."

In a typical pattern, Abdo owns a stretch of adjacent houses and apartment buildings on 19th Street, several of which are rented out. He plans gaslight lanterns on the sidewalk in front of his 19th Street properties.

One of the company's missions is to "move the bar north and east of Dupont Circle into areas not readily perceived as candidates for high-end residential development." In other words, develop fringe areas considered too derelict for middle-class living.

He initially had trouble persuading bankers to lend him the money to develop homes in that neighborhood, he said. They were worried the neighborhood couldn't sustain top-of-the-line luxury condos. But Abdo has very quickly proved them wrong.

"If we see the possibilities of what he's doing, we're happy to be a part of it," said Arthur Smith, vice president of Adams National Bank, a small District bank that has financed some of Abdo's projects. "He didn't have to talk us into 16 Logan Circle."

And the clients who have sold later have also made out well.

Hale bought the ground-floor apartment in the Sterling, an Abdo building at 15th and P streets, in October 1997 for $239,000. She loved living so close to downtown.

"I used to walk to work, walk to the fabulous restaurants on 17th Street," Hale said. "I just never walked toward the east side."

Hale sold her apartment exactly a year later, when she decided to get married and move to Cleveland Park. She sold it for $300,000, a profit of $61,000 in just a year.

Besides the escalating apartment prices, a new 48,000-square-foot Fresh Fields will soon be built on P Street between 14th and 15th streets. Abdo is also closing next month on the two commercial sites adjacent to the new Fresh Fields, and he's now in negotiations with retailers, including Borders Books, Blockbuster Video and Eckerd Drugs, to rent the space. He also plans to build a new-but-old-looking New York-loft-style apartment building behind the trendy grocery store.

"Everyone is talking about the new Fresh Fields," said Sharon Press, whose husband owns Ace Electric Supply, a lighting shop that has been on 14th Street for decades. "This is the hottest area in D.C. at the moment. For years, all of our orders were for the suburbs. Now we're getting orders for lighting right around here."

Abdo names most of his buildings after members of his family. Hence, there's the Sterling, the James and the Withington, all three buildings named after his maternal grandfather, World War I hero James Sterling Withington. Then there's the Fontelle, at 1529 Q St.; the Bristol; and the Bancroft, all names found in his family tree.

Abdo plans on doing what he's doing now for a long time to come. And he's not thinking of taking on any other D.C. neighborhoods at the moment either.

"There's still plenty to do here," Abdo said. "We've made an impact in the area where we live and work. And it's been a labor of love."

 

Resume

James Abdo

Age: 39

Marital status: Single. Lives with his dog, Liza.

Education: BA in sociology, Wooster College, Wooster, Ohio, 1982. Minor: History and communications.

Hobbies: Playing classical piano, taking his dog for walks, fly-fishing.

Background: His father is a Palestinian who came to the United States in 1948; his mother is from Rocky River, Ohio.

Weekend homes: A 62-acre estate with a stream and a pond full of fish, near Washington, Va.

Favorite movie: "Five Easy Pieces."

Favorite book: "The Stranger," by Albert Camus.

Last vacation: Rome and Tuscany, Italy, September 1997.