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Hill Rag
September, 2004

New Housing Plan Unveiled by Abdo Development
BY BILL VAN DEN TOORN

At a community meeting organized by ward 6 council member Sharon Ambrose, Jim Abdo of Abdo Development outlined his preliminary plans to build new housing at the Capital Children's Museum, a sprawling 2.4 acre site at H and Third Streets NE that the company recently bought for $24 million. Starting this month, the museum will go on the road for several years before moving into new quarters at L'Enfant Plaza.

Abdo specializes in restoring historic, rundown, properties and converting them into top-of-the-line luxury condominiums that feature big windows and airy, loft-like spaces. At the moment the company is completing the conversion of the Bryan at 1325 Independence Ave. SE, Abdo's first venture on Capitol Hill.

At the Children's Museum, Abdo intends to renovate the existing complex, built in the 1870s as a Catholic convent and a home for the poor and elderly. He will tear down the modern-day additions, making way for the construction of two very tall 11 story condominium buildings. There will be "lots of yard space in the interior to provide a residential feel and warm up the site," Abdo said, as well as multiple entrance ways to lend a sense of openness and transparency. The sketchy elevations of the condominium towers indicate an effort by Esocoff and Associates, the architect, to apply varied façade treatments so as to break up the mass.

In all, the conversion of the existing historic complex and the new construction will yield up to 500 residential units, according to the preliminary plan, and just over 500 underground parking spaces. The high density new construction is evidently needed to cross-subsidize the restoration work and make the project financially viable. To allow for the greater density, Abdo will submit an application for a planned unit development, or PUD, to the Zoning Commission which will probably hear the case in the fall. PUDs provide developers the flexibility to undertake complex projects that exceed limitations imposed by the underlying zoning. Construction work cannot begin until the Zoning Commission approves the PUD.

At the meeting, Abdo and Toby Millman, the company's vice president for project development, said the Children's Museum project would provide a mix of housing options, with prices targeted at a wide spectrum of income levels. They said an unspecified but "significant" amount of affordable housing would be built into the project owing to policies adopted by the city's planning office, which advises the Zoning Commission on PUD requests and large scale developments. This marks a departure for Abdo, a young company known almost exclusively for luxury, high-priced condos.

Yet many of the properties Abdo has bought and rehabilitated in the city were located in borderline or long distressed neighborhoods where the projects helped change the dynamics for the better. Buyers snapped up the Abdo condos not so much because of the location but in spite of it. H Street too has known distress. Once a bustling shopping center, the decline set in late in the 1950s as the middle-class fled to the suburbs. The 1968 riots, which devastated the commercial strip, proved to be the crowning blow. To this day, boarded up buildings and riot-scarred storefronts remain a dominant feature of the landscape along the H Street corridor, stretching from Second Street on the west to Maryland Avenue.

But here too there are signs of change, the H Street Playhouse and the restoration of the Atlas Theatre among them. Calling H Street a "sleeping giant," Abdo is well aware that his large housing project, anchoring the western gateway to H Street, could give the street's Strategic Development Plan a powerful lift. As approved by the city council, the $300 million plan, which depends largely on private investment, calls for new housing, low-rise office structures, retail, and arts and entertainment venues on H Street. At the western end of the strip, Clark Realty has a contract to redevelop the old Sears, Roebuck property. Clark plans to build 230 rental apartments and 50 townhouses at the 5 acre site.

Despite the still rundown conditions in the neighborhood, the Children's Museum site has many advantages, including its proximity to the transportation hub at Union Station, a 7-minute walk.