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A Solitary Stand at the Precipice
D.C. Architect Refused to Sell to Developers, Who Simply Press On Around Him

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The crater is a block long, a block wide and four stories deep, a canyon on Massachusetts Avenue NW between the Washington Convention Center and Union Station.

Earthmovers, so far down at the bottom that they resemble Tonka toys, burrow even deeper. Diesel engines groan, front-loaders beep and the ground shudders with each strike of the steel buckets from the backhoes. Dump trucks shudder up a dirt hill in a dusty convoy from the pit to the street. The pile driving, with its thunderous rhythms, is poised to begin.

And there, on the edge of this gaping chasm, is a stunning symbol of defiance: a tiny townhouse, clinging to a spit of remaining earth.

A net of steel pipes and heavy brackets has been positioned to prop up the house on three sides, but it looks as if at any moment it might crash into the hole. Just three feet of land on either side separate the house from the 40-foot drop-off.

Most mornings, a white car drives up to the precariously positioned townhouse. A man parks on a rough gravel patch, gets out and goes inside, as if nothing unusual is going on around him.

This is Austin L. Spriggs. The holdout.

In a city where landowners are selling long-held property for sudden riches, Spriggs just said no. And no. And no once more.

He resisted waves of developers who wanted to buy his peeling brick building. He turned down wads of money that thickened with time and stretched into the millions. He ignored pleas from other landowners worried that his obstinacy would stymie the fortunes of the entire block. He kept his own counsel, confounding the sophisticated executives who knocked on his door.

And, in the end, they're building around Austin Spriggs.

Exactly why Spriggs held out, what kinds of calculations he made and how he feels about the result is closely guarded. An intensely private man who won't share his home telephone number even with the people who live next door, he declined multiple requests for interviews.

His property, between Fourth and Fifth streets, has become the mystery of Massachusetts Avenue NW, causing double takes, rumors and speculation. "They offered him a lot of money for it, but he wouldn't sell," a man told a woman as they strolled past one recent afternoon.

"It just looks ridiculous -- this little house sitting on top," said Paul Edenbaum, who owned several parcels along the block, including a commercial parking lot next to the Spriggs property, then sold to developers. "You just have to smile."

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.

"He insisted that he was going to be the architect of record," Edenbaum said. "He was holding things up for a substantial amount of money and to be the architect of record. But he was basically against some very bright, sophisticated developers who essentially said, 'We'd love to do business with you, but we're not going to be held hostage.' "

Once the other landowners sold their lots to Trammell Crow and it became clear that profitable projects could be built around the Spriggs house, the value of his property began to wane.

"We still wanted to get him, but it wasn't necessary anymore," Murphy said. "I remember the last time I talked to him. I told him we were going ahead with the project without him, and he mumbled something about how I should talk to his lawyer. It was kind of sad. He left a lot of money on the table."

"The danger, when you're a spike holding out for the last dollar, is that you ask for one dollar too much," said Phillip Appelbaum, manager of litigation and appeals at the District's Office of Tax and Revenue.

Trammell Crow sold the lots it had assembled to two companies. Penzance Cos. plans a sleek 12-story office building made from concrete and glass. Broadway Management is building the plush Dumont Condominiums, two buildings with units selling for as much as $1 million. Plans call for the office building and the condominium to wrap around the Spriggs house on three sides and tower above it.

Securing the Spriggs house during construction has added about $600,000 in costs, which is split between Penzance and Broadway. The house is monitored five days a week to make sure it isn't moving, said Doug Lewis of Davis Construction. The work, which started in December, is scheduled to be finished next year.

Penzance and Broadway also offered to buy the Spriggs house. "We could never ascertain what was behind his lack of interest in entertaining what were serious offers," said Peter N. Greenwald of Penzance, which offered Spriggs what Greenwald called "a fair market price plus a little premium" in 2004.

A clue to the intentions of Austin Spriggs lies in a newly upgraded gas line to his 116-year-old house. Spriggs wants to open a Ledo Pizza franchise, according to the president of the Maryland-based pizza chain, James B. Beall.

Ledo expects to sign an agreement in the next weeks with Spriggs, who will substantially remodel the house, Beall said. The architect took out a $650,000 mortgage in January.

Plans call for the pizzas to start coming out of the oven in 2007 -- in time for the condominium dwellers and office workers who will be close enough to smell the food cooking.

"I don't care how much pizza he sells," Edenbaum said. "He'll never make what he could have if he sold his place."

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