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The Hill
July, 2004

Cities will endure
Old buildings, new people

by Duncan Spencer

On a blazing hot weekday, 14th Street above Thomas Circle is a place where urban decay and license are grudgingly giving way to new buildings and new businesses — the cranes of great transformation loom nearby. And the offices of Jim Abdo in the 1400 block are quiet, surprising and secret.

Abdo is the talk of the D.C. development world. No longer young (he’s 44) but still the enfant terrible of urban development, he is changing the language of urban housing, using the buildings of the past to create the new high end enclaves which lure the young and the adventurous back from the suburbs.

Abdo paces, gesturing while using his headset phone, amid a large space filled with odd objects — gothic woodwork, modern painting, a large sofa and tables.

A trim, casually dressed man with darting eyes, he is unreserved and enthusiastic. “Cities metamorphosis,” he declares, “But they endure.”

It is he who has gained Capitol Hill’s attention with his brilliant conversion of Bryan School on 13th Street S.E. — though he gives credit to his property man, Toby Millman, for the idea — and it is he who is now embarked on the largest project of his career and one of the largest reconstruction projects ever to hit Capitol Hill — the conversion of the Capital Children’s Museum on 3rd and H streets N.E. to apartments, lofts and condos.

In this town of cubbyholes, parties and cliché, Abdo will always be known as the man who “turned crack houses into high-end condos.” Fourteen buildings in three and a half years made him a legend around Dupont and Logan circles by 2000.

All of them were old structures, into which he jammed new amenities. His projects normally sold out before the restorations were complete.

Who, then, is he? There is Abdo, son of a Palestinian immigrant. A poor but clever boy, he grew up delivering papers, shoveling snow from doorsteps and raking leaves in Kent, Ohio. Abdo, later, a brilliant student who could have gone to any Ivy League college but chose little, Presbyterian Wooster College near Cleveland in Ohio, “one of the great influences in my life,” he says of that choice.

Wooster’s hold on Abdo is profound. The pretty gothic buildings, the tight campus — “It all meant tradition ... this island in Ohio,” he said. There he found the architecture and the craftsmanship of the 1860s that he loves. He studied sociology, not business, architecture or art, but felt the school perfectly prepared him for a wildly varied career.

There is Abdo the entrepreneur, who began with a single pizza house on borrowed money at Hilton Head, N.C., and turned it into a chain he sold for his first fortune.

There is Abdo the journalist-by-chance, who came to D.C., exhausted from the pizza adventure, settling in Georgetown. At a Berlitz French class, he was drawn into voice reporting, became a radio newsman and in 1991 was covering the Pentagon for USA Radio, and nearly bought an Annapolis radio station.

Then there is Abdo the builder. He looked at Washington as it was a dozen years ago and wondered how people could be leaving such a beautiful city with so many remarkable buildings.

“I knew one thing. It had to turn,” he says frequently. He decided to buy a brownstone, 1736 19th St. He still lives at the top of the building, the Withington.

That first big city renovation in 1996 was the foundation of Abdo Development.

Right from the first, Abdo used his communication skills to effect. The usual scene — in which a developer comes into a neighborhood with big plans — always produces resentment.

He admits gentrification and reaction to it are things developers have to handle.

“We build for six-figure incomes,” he says. “But it is hard for me to feel sorry for someone who has sold his house for $700,000” and then complains about being forced out. He sees the future of subsidized housing for the poor as part of mixed income projects, like the Hill’s Ellen Wilson project.

Abdo softens the gentrification drama by hiring neighborhood people, even homeless people; by carefully tuning his pitch to the tone of the street he’s working on; and by stressing the benefits of development — jobs, less crime, better shopping. He tries to find properties (like Bryan School and the museum) that don’t have residents.

Last there is Abdo the visionary, who sees making real change in the entire social fabric of the city with one central idea — bringing people back into the urban center.

The only sure cure for crime, decay, lack of amenities, poor quality of life, drugs and homelessness, he says, is people who have a stake in neighborhoods. You don’t need office buildings, institutions, anchor tenants, shopping, etc. “What you need is people living on the street,” he says. 

“Housing is the answer,” Abdo

Cracking the nut of H Street

All his ideas coalesce on the big Capitol Children’s Museum project.
“First, I want to preserve an old building. Second, I want to stimulate the renaissance of H Street,” he says

When finished three years from now, the former St. Joseph’s Little Sisters of the Poor convent will contain 500 units of housing on its site, most of it upscale. The site itself will be almost unrecognizable, for Abdo plans to knock down all but the 1870 core buildings and build new, period structures on the space created, just as he did at Bryan School.

His planning takes advantage of planned-unit development (PUD), a legal tool that allows large projects to be compensated for difficulties by easing zoning and other regulations.

Abdo, for instance, wants higher density than local zoning would permit, and, under PUD, he will get what he wants because of the difficulties of tearing down large existing brick structures.

Abdo is rich, and his company thriving, but he plans to spend $25 million to buy the 2.4 acres of the convent/museum. He estimates it will take $100 million to deconstruct the museum and then build two additional buildings. A New York financial partner is involved in the project.

Millman, Abdo’s acquisitions man, saw Bryan School as a development site. Abdo saw the museum/convent as a logical next step: no inhabitants, historic building, adjacent land, overlooked area close to the Capitol. It made sense, even at $100 million.

Abdo knew other plus factors are converging on the tattered but feisty black shopping street.

• Clark Realty (of Clark Construction) has a contract to buy 5 acres of vacant land at the other end of H Street N.E., the former Sears, Roebuck site, for an undisclosed sum and build 230 apartments and 50 town houses there.

• John Akridge Co. has bought 10 acres of air rights over the CSX railhead that enters Union Station from the Northeast for $10 million. Akridge usually builds office space.

• The Securities and Exchange Commission is moving into a vast office structure along 2nd Street N.E.

• The average price of a house in Near Northeast between H Street and Florida Avenue was $79,000 in 1999. In 2003, it was $226,000.

Said Millman, “One day people will look back and say this has been one of the great eras for Washington D.C.”