An Interview WIth: Jim Abdo - Part 1
Jim Abdo has not only created a sizzling development company, but is transforming block after block of urban decay in Washington into glistening new condos — and now has plans for the mother of all residential developments in Northeast DC. Abdo, 45, grew up near Kent State University in Ohio, went to South Carolina after college, created a restaurant business, sold it, and plucked Washington from a map for his next act because he liked the area for the recreational and commercial opportunities he felt it represented. Ten years ago he founded Abdo Development, working out of his 19th Street townhouse for two years, then setting up offices on 14th Street, where he bought up and improved adjacent buildings and helped spur development of the whole neighborhood. He has done numerous high-end condo projects in the Logan Circle area, such as the Willison (1425 Rhode Island), the Emerson (12th and N), and the Ashton and Dalton (14th and Q); and also on Capitol Hill, including the Bryan School Lofts (13th and Independence, SE) and now a major project underway called the Landmark Lofts and Senate Square (3rd and H Streets, NE). He has also recently ventured for the first time outside DC to Clarendon Boulevard in Arlington where he is putting up the Mercer and Wooster Lofts. Abdo has 50 corporate employees although indirectly employs over 400 on any given day. Recently he opened a 6,000 square foot urban marketing center on 14th Street, NW between his headquarters and the building he leases to Caribou Coffee.
Editor’s note: This interview will be published in two installments.
Bisnow on Business: Your dramatic plan for Northeast Washington has the local real estate world buzzing. What is it?
Our “gateway” project at New York Avenue, Bladensburg Road, and Montana Avenue. It’s basically a triangular site. It makes up about 17 acres of contiguous land and is to the best of our knowledge the largest privately assembled parcel in the city’s recent history. Probably as far back as the last 50 years. This is not an NCRC site. It’s not a GSA site. This is all private land owners that we’ve put together to create this gateway assemblage at the eastern gateway to the District of Columbia. And if you look at what’s taking place out there today it’s a hodgepodge of uses. They’re uses that I think quite frankly are embarrassing for the District of Columbia as you’re coming through from the very first traffic light that you hit as you’re coming down Route 50. What you experience out there is in my mind pathetic when you’re talking about the gateway to the nation’s capitol. You’ve got a boarded up Taco Bell, a strip tease club, junk yards with junk yard dogs, and a variety of other disgraceful uses.
So what are you going to do to it?
Well, we’re going to scrape it all off, throw it in a dumpster and haul it all away. And we’re going to create through the PUD process a change from an industrial use, which is what that land use is there right now, to allow for a mixed use development. We want to bring to the District about 3.5 million square feet of new residences and probably 4-5,000 new residents. And 250-350,000 square feet of retail along New York Avenue that we hope will be anchored by a 60,000 square foot Whole Foods right at the corner of New York Avenue and Montana.
What’s the status?
We’ve already filed our PUD. We go before the zoning commission for what’s called a set down hearing in the first week of May. The PUD hearing will take place in July to allow the Zoning Commission to see exactly what we’re going to be doing out there. The Commission already has a zoning submittal package that shows them renderings, how we’re approaching and programming the site, how we’re dealing with landscaping. It includes designs of buildings, traffic studies, and a description of retail components. Everything you could possibly think of has already been vetted and completed. We’ve spent a year and one-half working on all this, from putting the land together to putting the PUD submittal package together. There’s already millions of dollars invested in this.
What’s the timetable after that? When would all this be done?
Once the entitlements are in place, we intend to take down the land in total. And we could see construction, demolition and those types of work taking place, where we start getting the site ready and cleaned up, within 18 months.
And after that?
Then we’re going to phase the development project. You can’t just suddenly spring 3.8 million square feet of development out of the ground simultaneously. But our goal for a phase one is to create a substantial amount of development very quickly along New York Avenue, both housing and retail. And one of the things that’s very interesting about our approach to this site is we are sort of borrowing from the suburban country club developers approach.
Country club approach?
If you look at land developers way outside of the city center who do country club development—which I know is kind of weird when you think about this being such an urban core development—the first thing that they’ll do to drive the real estate is build the amenity. They’ll build the golf course, they’ll build the clubhouse. And then they’ll use that amenity to drive the sale of the land for the housing. Well, we looked at that idea and we said, you know, why doesn’t someone do that and bring it inward to the urban area? The first thing you need to make that happen is critical mass, like 17 acres. And, believe me, I’m not talking about building a golf course at Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue. But what we are going to do at that site to make it so compelling as a place for people to live is to provide amenities there that are unlike any others at any condominium housing development elsewhere in the District of Columbia.
Of the 17 acres that we’ve assembled, five and one-half acres of land will remain open green space. A prominent amount of it is in the center of the site, the area that we’re calling for now our “central park.” It’s right in the center. And what it represents is a three and one-half acre private green park right in the center of our site. Now to put that in perspective, three and one-half acres is bigger than Dupont Circle. It’s bigger than Gramercy Park in New York. And this is a private central park just for the ownership and enjoyment of the owners at this development. They will have exercise trails, quiet green space, and fountains. The large growth tree canopies that can take place over time. Because we’re actually not even excavating underneath this land. This is going to be land that won’t have parking underneath it. It will be a true three and one-half acre park that will be there in perpetuity.
Is this a gated community?
It effectively will be a gated community. It’s not going to have a gate per se. That’s sort of an unfair characterization. But it will have a perimeter of buildings around it. These buildings will be broken up and open so there will be a lot of transparency. But they’ll be what we are calling “couplers” in between buildings that are going to be all-glass arrival areas where you come in and create a concierge, and you’ll be able to look through to this beautiful green park in the center of the site. You need to look at the PUD drawings to understand it. But having such an intense commitment to open green space and light is something that we think is extremely compelling. Another thing that’s compelling is that we intend to build what we are calling the Arbor Club, which will happen in our very first phase. The Arbor Club will be a 40,000 square foot private club for the owners. It will have an indoor swimming pool, a full size indoor basketball court, a state of the art exercise facility with a wall of glass overlooking the private inner courtyard three-and- one-half acre park. And probably most importantly, one of the things that we are adding to the Arbor Club is a sizable seven day a week, on site, childcare facility. What we want to attract here are young families, new families. This will be work force housing that allows families with both mothers and fathers or partners who are working to have a safe environment that they can leave their children in and go to work.
Based on where this is located and the price points that you might expect, who is it going to attract? People who are now living where and working where?
Great question. We don’t necessarily see this as a site that’s going to be competing with existing residents within the District of Columbia. For example, we’re not looking for people who are living in Dupont Circle or Georgetown or Kalorama to say, “Oh, you know what? I think I’m going to sell and move out to New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.” Instead, we believe that this is a site that offers an enormous amount of opportunity for people who are living in Prince George’s County or further that are spending an hour to two hours a day in bumper-to-bumper traffic driving right past the front door of our site to sort of re-examine their approach to living and say to themselves, “You know what? Why am I doing this every day?” What I envision is having the site completely cleaned off and covered with grass seed before we begin building. And having a row of signs. The classic sign first of all saying, “If you lived here you’d be home right now. But not only would you be home right now. You’d be shopping at Whole Foods, you’d be swimming in one of six rooftop pools that are happening on six different buildings, you’d be exercising in our state of the art health club. You’d be riding your bike in the Arboretum”, which is adjacent to us, which represents 450 acres of essentially a national park, which is what drew us to this site so much.
The National Arboretum is a unique asset.
We are sitting right next door to the greatest amenity that this city has that no one is taking advantage of as it relates to housing. Now think about this for a minute. If you go to New York and you want to buy a condo, what’s the most sought after area that people want? They want access to Central Park, they want views overlooking Central Park. Well, we own that site in the District of Columbia. We have spectacular views overlooking the National Arboretum, which is this city’s Central Park. And no one has thought to bring substantial housing to it.
Editor’s note: The second installment of this interview will be published as the next issue of Washington Real Estate Weekly.