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Residential Developer
Winter 2005

Consensus Builder: Community Relationships Clear Obstacles in Developer's Path
by Lawrence D. Maloney

With visions of shabby neighborhoods, irate community groups, and bureaucratic logjams looming large in their minds, most developers avoid the urban core. Not so Jim Abdo, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C., construction firm that bears his name, Abdo has spawned the revitalization of some of Washington's bleakest neighborhoods over the last decade.

Since 1996, The community has completed more than 30 projects–from refurbished stores on the once-deteriorating 14th Street to a century-old school building converted into luxury condos on Capitol Hill. In the process, Abdo has won praise from community groups and city officials alike.

"Jim Abdo is known for the quality of his work," says architect Frank Mobilio, president of the Logan Circle Community Association. "He invested in our neighborhood long before anyone else would even touch it."

"We were approached by other developers, but Jim was by far the most sensitive to what the community needed," adds Kathy Dwyer Southern, president and CEO of the Capital Children's Museum, which recently sold its 2.4-acre site to Abdo for a planned unit development.

What makes the 45-year-old developer so successful? As those who have watched him over the years attest, Abdo is a master at taking the pulse of the communities in which he builds and crafting projects that mesh with their dreams for their neighborhoods.

Abdo's history of relentless community involvement has served him well in what is described as downtown Washington's biggest residential project in years: Senate Square. At a cost of more than $150 million, Abdo is turning the children's museum site into a 480-unit condo community, with units priced from $300,000 to more than $1 million. Though two condo buildings will house the majority of units, the centerpiece is Abdo's conversion of the site's five-story, 130-year-old museum into 45 luxury condo lofts.

From the time the company contracted to buy the site for $24 million in March 2004, it took just one year to negotiate the approval process and earn a favorable decision from the D.C. zoning commission.

As Abdo explains it, the company needed the commission's go-ahead because his company sought to shift the density on the site to preserve the old museum building, while building two 11-story structures on formerly open land. "If we had just bulldozed everything, we wouldn't have had to go in for a [planned unit development]," explains Abdo, "but our goal was to restore the museum to its original grandeur."

Ultimately, Abdo got a 10 percent increase in density from the zoning commission, notes Toby Millman, vice president of project development at Abdo, largely because of the benefits the project brought to the community. These include: preserving the historic museum building in a park-like setting and changing the site's zoning from commercial to residential; establishing a strong housing anchor to boost business along the decaying H Street corridor; earmarking 20,000 square feet of condos for affordable housing; and exceeding city guidelines for doing business with disadvantaged businesses.

The go-ahead from the zoning commission followed months of meetings with groups–ranging from elected officials and city staff to neighborhood associations. "Our kickoff meeting at the children's museum was standing room only," recalls Abdo. "It was our chance to show our vision and what it could mean to the community–and to get their feedback. We got a standing ovation."

What distinguishes Abdo from other urban developers is that his company relishes the whole approvals process. "Abdo listens–not once but many times. ...and is willing to make changes," says Southern, who notes that the Capital Children's Museum is building a new $100 million children's museum at L'Enfant Plaza, a few miles from its old site.

Among many examples, Abdo voluntarily brought his project before the D.C. Preservation League, which recommended he find an outside architect skilled in historic preservation. Abdo responded by hiring one of Washington's most respected restoration architects, Philip Esocoff.

In answer to suggestions from the local advisory neighborhood commission, Abdo altered the style of the high-rise condo buildings to make them more compatible with the museum building. And when the city's Office of Planning raised concerns that the height of one of the new buildings would create shadow problems for townhouses across the street, Abdo did a full-fledged shadow study and made adjustments to the architecture.

Even so, Abdo's track record of working successfully with the community headed off major problems. Says Ellen McCarthy, director of the D.C. Office of Planning: "Jim had worked with our office on so many projects that he had a really good appreciation of what would be important to us."

In the end, Abdo's dogged pursuit of community consensus paid off. The D.C. Preservation League, the Office of Planning, and the advisory neighborhood commission were among the nearly 30 groups and individuals who testified in favor of the Senate Square project before the zoning commission. Only one individual, who objected to the height of the buildings, testified against it.

As a result of Senate Square, observers say that property values have jumped substantially in the neighborhood, and other developers have announced plans for projects. "Jim Abdo has clearly been a major contributor to the revival of downtown D.C.," says attorney Charles Docter, who served on the neighborhood commission for the H Street area.

Abdo himself concludes that there is a "silver lining" to his inclusive approach to urban projects. "I am not one of those developers who think they know everything," says Abdo. "More often than not, you get a better project as a result of listening."