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A Solitary Stand at the Precipice

Austin L. Spriggs declined repeatedly to sell his aging rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Now, it clings to the edge of a massive construction crater four stories deep.
Austin L. Spriggs declined repeatedly to sell his aging rowhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Now, it clings to the edge of a massive construction crater four stories deep. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Spriggs and his wife, Gladys, both 69, bought the two-story house in 1980 for $135,000. They live elsewhere, in a District neighborhood at the edge of Rock Creek Park, but use the townhouse as an office for Austin L. Spriggs Associates, his small architecture firm where their daughter, Angela, also works.

He made a career from local government contracts -- designing grit chambers for the Blue Plains water-treatment facility and a garage for garbage trucks for the District, for example. "It's a small shop, and the work is not really well known in the community," said William Ngutter, president of the local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

For three decades, Massachusetts Avenue just east of Mount Vernon Square was a stretch of decrepit lots claimed by the homeless, vacant houses and prostitutes. But the arrival of the new convention center in 2003 triggered a transformation, now accelerating like a boulder rolling downhill. About 120,000 square feet of retail, more than 1,700 apartments and condominiums and 234,000 square feet of offices are under construction, said Gerry Widdicombe of the Downtown Business Improvement District.

Waves of developers approached the landowners, trying to secure enough properties to build one or two large and lucrative projects -- hotels or residences or offices. One by one, the landowners signed deals. Except Spriggs.

"Mr. Spriggs's property was a property you needed -- we really wanted to try to get him," said Robert Murphy, who worked to strike a deal with Spriggs when he was running development operations for Trammell Crow Co., a commercial real estate business.

In the lingo of the land business, the Spriggs property was a "spike," a holdout threatening a larger development plan. Examples of other spikes are scattered across the city, so curious in their appearance that they look like aesthetic mistakes.

At the edge of Chinatown, on the southwestern corner of Eighth and H streets NW, the owner of an old three-story building that houses a tarot card reader and a souvenir shop refused to sell to builders of an office tower on H Street. The 10-story tower was erected anyway, wrapped around the holdout in an L-shape that dwarfs the little building and blocks the daylight. In the fast-developing Southeast Washington neighborhood around the Navy Yard, a 14-story Marriott Courtyard hotel is designed around a vacant, two-story brick corner building that developers could not manage to acquire.

Like other holdouts, Spriggs deflected the developers. "We could never get a back-and-forth going," Murphy said. "He was very distrustful by nature."

Trammell Crow offered Spriggs $2 million to $3 million in late 2003, when city records listed the peeling rowhouse's assessed value at $199,340. But Spriggs wouldn't bite.

Scott Frankel, a broker who represented Edenbaum, the largest single landowner on the block, also repeatedly tried to make a deal with Spriggs. He said Spriggs was offered about $1.5 million in 2003, but he wanted five to 10 times as much.

"Maybe someone would pay him twice as much, but no one was going to pay 10 times as much," Frankel said. "He was a very proud man. He had been in that property and sitting there for years, and now the city is coming his way and he was talking astronomical numbers."

Spriggs had one more demand.

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