A Man With Plans: With enormous vision and energy, Jim Abdo '82 is transforming parts of Washington, D.C. Urban development is the latest career in his colorful work portfolio.
by Jimmy Wilkinson Meyer
Most people look at 1441 Rhode Island Ave. in northwest Washington, D.C., located between a dilapidated Victorian brownstone and a narrow alley, and see a large lot littered with urban debris.
Not Jim Abdo '82.
Abdo sees lofts, lots of lofts, New York style, in a new building which resembles an historic warehouse. "A spectacular building, 16-foot ceilings. Walls of windows. Stone archways. Underground private parking. An enclosed walk way to the new gourmet grocery store behind it," Abdo envisions enthusiastically.
"A fantastic building."
Looks like a vacant lot to the rest of us.
Three qualities distinguish urban developer Jim Abdo: vision, determination, and the willingness to take risks. He approaches whatever he attempts with a spirit of adventure tempered by a keen business sense.
In Abdo's mind, the structures in the transitional neighborhood between Dupont and Logan circles -- the crack houses and slum-like vintage apartment buildings -- become luxury condominiums. Graffiti-covered walls disappear to create large indoor spaces. Boarded-up and broken windows appear whole and restored, opening the interior to broad views of the nation's capital.
For Abdo, the vision comes naturally. "I can walk into any building and see exactly the way I want it to flow and the way I want it to work. It's already there, it's done. I drag Greg Zahn, my architect, around with me and say, 'This is what I want to do. I want this out here. I want this to be open there.'"
Abdo praises Zahn for his ability to solidify such airy plans into concrete, workable, appealing designs, often expanding on Abdo's images2.
In its three and a half years of existence, Abdo Development has completed 14 buildings in the Dupont and Logan areas, most of them dating to the 19th century. For renovation and restoration, the company selects old structures of quality and adds modern amenities and more light and volume while maintaining the historic aura. The company has built a few new buildings, too, such as The James at 1515 P St., carefully planning them to fit the neighborhood's historic flavor.
The condominiums, priced as high as $575,000, usually sell out before Abdo Development completes the renovation.
Abdo named the first "significant" building that he worked on The Withington, after his grandfather, James Sterling Withington. Abdo also named two later buildings, The James and The Sterling, after the World War I veteran and his grandson's hero.
When he first saw The Withington, 1736 19th St., Abdo says it was a "flop house." The former elegant Victorian mansion dated back to 1890. The owner lived in Florida and leased neglected rooms to college students who paid almost nothing in rent.
Abdo describes what he had to work with: "It was in complete disrepair, just a mess, in the middle of a beautiful street." When the owner decided to sell, Abdo says that, despite the building's condition, he "was fortunate enough" to acquire the property. "We completely gutted it and converted it into four luxury condominiums," he continues. "A huge success, they sold out immediately and set records for price per square foot in the Dupont area.
"That's when I knew that I was on to something, both that I loved and that I felt would be successful."
Abdo now owns several adjacent properties on 19th, his favorite street. He and his mellow Weimaraner, Liza, live in the penthouse unit of the Withington, modest quarters in comparison to later Abdo Development renovations. Abdo exults over the miniature "Romeo and Juliet balcony" that he added to the facade, just large enough for a small table and two chairs. He proudly opens the door to a large rooftop deck -- built atop the abutting building.
On a balmy day in early December, Abdo notes that he needs to get a crew to help carry his seven-foot-tall ficus trees inside for the winter. Meanwhile, this visitor tries to take in, from every angle, the compelling views of the neighborhood that Abdo is helping to change.
Jim Abdo often drives a pickup to work and wears clothes suitable for the construction site. Today, however, he's dressed up in a black turtleneck, sport coat, and corduroys. Not one to sit in his office and give orders even on a dressed-up day, he wears shoes with soles thick enough to take him through the roughest of renovations. Abdo has picked up a piece of tape on the sole of one shoe as we climb to another rooftop, off of the penthouse at 16 Logan Circle. This structure is to be featured as a work-in-progress on a house tour three days from now. We pass workers, all of whom Abdo calls by name, who feverishly strive to finish what they can. From this aerie we can see the Capitol in one direction and the Washington Monument in another.
Back on the second floor of 16 Logan, eight-foot-tall bay windows feature curved glass, specially crafted to look like the originals, complete with chain sash cords and old-fashioned locks. Abdo spares no expense in his drive to reconstruct a building's historic presence. While gutting interiors, raising ceilings, and opening up chopped-up Victorian floor plans, he also takes pains to preserve unique features such as a three-story flying staircase with carved detail and trim here at 16 Logan. When he first looked at the building, he says, layers of paint completely obscured this detailing.
The easy responses from his laborers clearly demonstrate that Abdo makes a habit of such site visits. He listens as well as looks.
"What's that noise? Where's it coming from?" he asks as we go through the ultra-modern kitchen. It turns out to be the new state-of-the-art, granite-colored refrigerator, whirring like a car engine going bad. Before we leave, Abdo informs the electrician about the problem, asks him to listen to the fridge, see what he thinks, and get it fixed before Sunday.
The thrill of taking risks
Abdo takes risks in pursuing his visions. The risks challenge and thrill him. He took a major chance in choosing to rehabilitate this particular neighborhood, for many years the home of drug addicts and prostitutes as well as a few hardy long-time residents. Three years ago, few commercial amenities -- mostly seedy looking -- existed to attract Abdo's upscale buyers: a couple of liquor stores, a laundromat, a dry cleaning business, check cashing locations. Neighborhood advantages included proximity to five Metro stops and a new trendy feel close to Dupont Circle. Abdo's bankers balked, though, when he insisted on pushing the area's redevelopment across 16th Street -- seen by locals since the 1960s as the "line in the sand."
In terms of development, "nobody liked to cross 16th Street," Abdo explains, even though, he says, "you can see the front door of the White House right down 16th Street. The church that President Clinton attends is on 16th. My gut feeling was -- it's got to turn."
While he bases a lot of decisions on such feelings, Abdo also does his research. Although he now is one of the major players in the redevelopment of northwest Washington, Abdo was not alone in seeing the area's wealth of architectural possibilities -- or its tremendous business potential. In the early 1990s, following the opening of a Metro station and on the cusp of the urban pioneer movement, non-profit organizations and for-profit builders began transforming first individual houses and then whole blocks.
Abdo probably risked more than his competitors. His slim experience portfolio included helping to rehab a Civil War-era house in his hometown, Kent, Ohio, during the summers of his college years, and renovating a single-family dwelling in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. Oh yes, and he had designed the interior of a few pizza places. This sociology major came to architectural restoration and renovation without any business courses, no degrees in urban planning or architecture -- not even an art minor.
Jim Abdo never lets such trivial details get in the way of a dream. His parents encouraged him and his siblings to do what ever made them happy, as long as the pursuits fit with the values of revering family and respecting people. (Abdo is the middle child of three sisters and brother David '86.) Long before he entered college, Abdo had learned the value of hard work and of money. "I was a business manager since I was seven," he recalls. "I delivered everybody's newspapers in the neighborhood. I shoveled their snow in the winter, raked their leaves in the fall, and mowed their grass in the summer.
"I was a little company ever since I was a kid!"
After leaving Wooster, Abdo resumed business management at a small pizza shop in Hilton Head, S.C. Bill Somerlot '82 was there, too, at the beginning of what would become a statewide chain of five Sharky's Pizza restaurants. Abdo's College room mate, Somerlot stayed with pizza for a year or so before leaving to follow his own dream, teaching environmental sciences.
When Abdo sold the company after 11 years, he had secured a national trademark for Sharky's Pizza. That sale marked the end of Abdo's pizza period. On to the next adventure -- "dabbling in journalism" -- as he says.
From pizza to the Pentagon
Serendipity played a starring role in Abdo's next career move. Tired of Hilton Head's tourist atmosphere and "exhausted" from the restaurant venture, he relocated to the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. He was married then, and his wife attended Georgetown University. Abdo had "plenty of time off" to enjoy the cultural activities and educational opportunities that he had sorely missed.
"Even though we didn't have much money growing up," he says, "our family really took advantage of the wonderful culture available to us. Kent was a university town, with plays, music recitals, etc. We all played instruments and learned to appreciate the arts at a very young age. I owe that to my mother to this day."
Indulging this love of culture led Abdo to take a French class at the Berlitz School. There he met the bureau chief of the Nightly Business Report, a public television show. "We talked about my radio experience at the College. (Abdo had an evening DJ slot on WCWS for three years). I really enjoyed doing radio."
His French classmate recognized Abdo's "natural" gifts in journalism and introduced him to Larry Janezich, director of the radio and TV correspondents' gallery at the Capitol building.
Abdo says, "I remember meeting him a few days before Christmas in 1990. Janezich said, 'I never do this, but I've got a feeling you can do well in this business.' He made a phone call to a syndicated organization called U.S.A. Radio News."
"U.S.A. Radio does news all over the U.S., the Virgin Islands, Canada," Abdo explains. "Hundreds of independent radio stations buy top-of-the-hour news, broadcast by satellite."
As it happened, the network had an opening covering the biweekly Pentagon Press briefings. After a telephone interview with U.S.A. Radio headquarters in Dallas, the company hired Abdo.
This was supposed to be a little part-time job, sort of an internship in journalism. But by January of 1991 when the new reporter attended his first press briefing, American troops had arrived in Kuwait to defend it from Iraq. In the face of the military build-up, many predicted that Saddam Hussein would back down from his intention to take over the small neighboring country.
Instead, war broke out. And Abdo all of a sudden got very busy. The day he filed his first story, he went home thinking that he would go to the next briefing two days later. But, as he tells it, "My phone rang around 6:30 in the evening. It was the network in Dallas saying, 'Bombs are flying in Baghdad.'
"I raced back to the Pentagon and sat in the third row right behind Wolf Blitzer and Fred Frances and all of these other famous journalists. It was a mob scene. Right there in front of me were Dick Chaney and General Colin Powell."
He covered the press briefings for 12 hours a day, every day, for the duration of the yearlong war. Some part-time job. Jim Abdo -- U.S.A. Radio's man in the Pentagon.
"It was crazy," Abdo remembers. "I filed 10 or 11 stories a day. Driving home, I would hear myself on the radio. I didn't even have time to tell my family or friends what I was doing."
Most of them found out, however, the way that Bill Somerlot did. Lying in bed one day sick with the flu, Somerlot flipped on the TV and turned to CNN. When he saw his former Wooster roommate in the second row of news reporters, he almost fell out of bed.
One of Abdo's sisters had not seen her brother in six years when the same thing happened to her, at her home in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. "Oh my God," she exclaimed, "that's my brother there on television!"
Abdo found reporting demanding, challenging, and "a lot of fun. I had press passes to the Pentagon. I covered the big demonstration that took place here in Washington when there was a lot of resistance to the war."
Other reporters would ask, "What network were you with before?" Abdo would answer, still surprised himself, "I was flipping pizzas down in Hilton Head six months ago.
"It really was an exciting year. I thought that I would just get my feet wet, and, amazingly, there I was under the hot lights every day. I got to go to the press dinner with the President that they hold every year...all of that good stuff.
"It was like having the keys to the city and being able to see it from the inside."
Abdo even broke news one day. He recalls the moment well: "I knew that the Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, planned to meet with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev to try to secure a diplomatic ending to the war. This was in the middle of a huge American bombing campaign which targeted all airplanes, trains, etc. I wondered how Aziz was going to get to Moscow safely.
"So I just raised my hand and asked, 'General Kelly, you have total air superiority, you control every aspect of transportation, how will the deputy prime minister safely leave the country to meet with Gorbachev?"
"I will never forget," Abdo continues, "Kelly just stared down at me sitting in the second row and declared adamantly, 'I will never put American lives in danger by stopping the bombing of Iraq for any reason.'"
Abdo pushed further and asked, "What about diplomatic safe passage?" He did not get a clear answer.
The query ended up as front-page news in major papers like the New York Times. "It was pretty wild to ask a question with such an impact," Abdo says.
During his Pentagon experience, Abdo quickly learned the power of the press and the media in the 1990s. He also discovered that this was not to be his life's work.
"I knew that it was time to get back to being what I really am, an entrepreneur rolling up my sleeves, getting to work, and making a serious living," he says.
Thus ended Abdo's journalism period. Well, almost.
Before turning to urban development, Abdo looked into buying a third of a radio station, WRNR, based in Annapolis, Md. The former Wooster DJ, pizza man, and Pentagon reporter ended up doing WRNR's morning show with a friend.
"That was really, really fun," Abdo recalls with obvious delight. "Doing the drive-time show from six to 10 a.m. on a major radio station covering Baltimore, Washington, and Annapolis.... We had hundreds of thousands of listeners every morning." Abdo and friend did the show for 90 days before Abdo decided not to buy the station.
"So I got that out of my system," Abdo concludes.
Newly divorced, he moved to the Dupont historical area because it was "more of a eclectic mix, very artsy.... I saw myself surrounded with beautiful treasures, buildings that were in the midst of extreme neglect. I just felt that (architectural renovation) was the thing for me to dive into."
The next thing, that is.
Abdo began renovating The Withington and founded Abdo Development in 1996.
Abdo says that the College encouraged his entrepreneurial spirit. "When I left Wooster, I really felt that I could do any thing. I never thought that the academic study required tunnel vision, that I was going to come out of there and specifically do X, Y, or Z. I knew that anybody on this campus could go off and do just about anything. The College gave us such a broad and dynamic background," he says.
"I have been pursuing dreams ever since I left Wooster and feel that the College is an ideal foundation for anyone with entrepreneurial passions."
The modest offices of Abdo Development sit on the top floor of a three-story building at 14th St. and Rhode Island Avenue, a short walk from Dupont or Logan circles, in the midst of the area being renovated. Before Abdo bought the building, crack dealers camped in the basement. Planting his headquarters there established credibility and trust among the residents and absentee owners.
His parents instilled in Jim Abdo a humanitarian ideal of giving back to the community. Abdo Development is a profit-sharing organization -- everybody is tied into the benefits. "If we do well on a project, everyone does well. They all feel a sense of connection to the business," he says.
The company is in fact doing well, very well. From modest sales of $880,000 in its first year, Abdo Development projects figures for the next 18 to 24 months at upwards of $35 million. Its accomplishments have attracted widespread media attention, with articles and photographs appearing in the Washington Post, the Washington Business Journal, Design Concepts, and elsewhere.
A few of the area's former residents work for Abdo Development or live in one of its 40 apartment buildings. Abdo has hired people who were homeless or living otherwise marginal lives. They are some of his most loyal workers. He tries hard to take care of the area's original tenants as well as appeal to prospective ones.
"We've never evicted anyone, ever, or just left them on the street. It's never happened," he insists. Instead, Abdo Development attempts to find suitable living places with comparable rents for the people who inhabit a building targeted for renovation, and the company pays the moving costs.
Abdo enjoys seeing northwest D.C. "come around" and "become safer and more integrated. It's just a wonderful feeling to know that you can have a impact in your neighborhood, especially in the nation's capital." To further strengthen the community, Abdo has created a separate commercial division, Abdo Commercial LLC. The goal is to attain more diversity among area retail operations. "It's one thing to have beautiful residential units, but you need the services to support them," he says.
Fighting Scots partnership
At Wooster Abdo gained not only a background in sociology but also a group of loyal friends. He shared Culbertson House on the north edge of campus with Bill Somerlot, Paul Storm, Gib Tecca, Dale Fortner, Chip Hansen, Brian Perry, '82s, and Drew Levinson and John Pizzarelli, '81s. The fellows make an effort to stay close, Abdo says. "We know it is really important to keep that sort of solidarity." He hosts the guys at his country house in Virginia for an annual tournament which features six events: golf, a 'closest to the pin' competition, fishing, darts, hearts, and target shooting.
Recently one of these Wooster connections led to a business venture. Drew Levinson, described by Abdo as "a very successful investment banker in New York City," let his developer friend know that he might be interested in going in on "the right deal." About 16 months ago, the right deal came along -- "a very sizable tract of land right next door to the historic district." Abdo had 48 hours to purchase the Rhode Island Avenue property, which had another contract pending.
While he usually works alone (he's the sole owner of Abdo Development), Abdo could not let this opportunity pass.
"I knew it had really wonderful potential. So I picked up the phone and called Drew and said, 'This is it!' He immediately asked, 'Do you like it?' I said, 'I love it!' He said, 'I'm in.' So we ended up acquiring this site ourselves."
Levinson describes his quick decision, "Jim has the Midas touch. Here's something I've never done before, know nothing about. But based on Jim's track record, I took a flyer on it." Levinson says that the folks he's spoken to in Washington describe Abdo as a "guy who does stuff right." His reputation as honest and hard working helps smooth bureaucratic hurdles.
Levinson and Abdo set up a holding company, a separate LLC called Fighting Scots Holdings, appropriately enough. Fighting Scots Holdings owns the property while Abdo Development is the developer. "To this day," Abdo says, "Drew has not seen the site. That particular project -- about a $25 million dollar build-out -- is going to end up being the largest development in my company's history.
"Well, short history."
Abdo expects to break ground in April of 2000 for the 160,000-square-foot building which will resemble a renovated warehouse on the outside -- very unusual in a city built on bureaucracy rather than industry. It will feature 80 loft condominiums and two levels of under ground parking. Abdo Development is negotiating for an indoor connection to the new Fresh Fields gourmet grocery store now under construction directly behind the property.
Abdo advises anyone considering a new career or pondering a job change "to make sure that you love what you are doing." While he knows that it sounds like a cliche, he says, "The key is recognizing your dream. I visualize some thing and I go after it, go after it with a vengeance. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I am willing to sacrifice a tremendous amount of time and a lot of energy. I am pursuing a dream and that is enough fuel to keep me going."
Fulfilling a dream doesn't mean totally abandoning the safety of one's present occupation, Abdo says. One can take half steps towards writing that book or screenplay, or take the time to explore possible options.
"If you want to become a real estate developer, you don't begin with a 40,000-square-foot building. I started with a single-family home in Georgetown."
As for Abdo, "Right now I am doing exactly what I want to do. This company challenges me from every angle. It's creative, it's artistic, it's intense business and intense risk. It requires very calculated decision-making.
"Right now this satisfies everything in me, but who knows what I will be doing five years from now, 10 years from now. I think that's what's fun about working. I really do."