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Who'd Want to Live There?

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006

Developer Jim Abdo eased his silver Range Rover down a potholed alley on the eastern edge of the District, pulling to a stop a few feet away from a junkyard dog.

The German shepherd slept on the other side of a chain-link fence, under a piece of tin. Crushed cars and stacks of tires surrounded the dog. Beyond that: auto repair shops, a strip joint and a nightclub where police last year arrested the owner in connection with a 220-pound cocaine bust.

"I've just found the greatest freaking site," Abdo said in his rapid-fire fashion. He lowered both windows. The smell of fuel and oil wafted in. He pointed to a banged-up red Ford. "That's where the center part of the private green space will be. It can feel like a sanctuary!"

This is the vista that has persuaded Abdo to sink more than $4 million into designs, plans and security deposits to turn 16 industrial acres along New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE -- a decrepit stretch that most people barely notice on their way to and from the city -- into 3.5 million square feet of development at a cost that Abdo estimates at $1.1 billion.

The site is east of downtown, near the Prince George's County line, and is bordered by New York and Montana avenues and Bladensburg Road NE. The project would include an estimated 3,000 condominiums, some with sweeping views of the Washington Monument, and about 140,000 square feet of retail space. Abdo envisions making it a gateway to the city, adorned with stores like Whole Foods and Crate & Barrel, topped off by condos and a health club, with bike paths to the nearby U.S. National Arboretum.

It's one of the largest privately financed condominium projects in years in the District, and it comes as the in-town condo market has cooled off. Units take longer to sell, and in some neighborhoods prices are flat.

Abdo agreed that his vision for New York Avenue sounds risky. The site is a mile from the nearest Metro stop and different from what he's done in the past decade: renovate historic buildings -- mostly in the Logan Circle and Dupont Circle areas and one on Capitol Hill -- and turn them into stylish condos and lofts.

"I know everybody's dying to ask, 'Jim, are you crazy? Who's going to want to live at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road?' " he said to a group of builders and brokers at a recent breakfast.

Abdo and his New York partner still need to raise the money to build, and the sale of the land that has five different owners is contingent on a major zoning change this fall. If everything goes well, he hopes to start demolition of what's there by next spring.

Abdo has two other big projects: a $40 million renovation of a historic convent into luxury lofts northeast of Union Station and a $66 million project across the river in Arlington. He is also negotiating to build as many as 600 condominiums above parking garages near the new baseball stadium in Southeast.

Abdo's competitors in an increasingly skittish industry, city planners and Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- a close friend -- are paying more attention than ever to the 46-year-old developer, who arrived in Washington from South Carolina 14 years ago.

"When you're on the StairMaster, you're looking out at a three-acre park," Abdo said, walking past the junkyards one day, talking about his plans. "We toyed with the idea of tennis courts. . . . Too much land area. What am I doing? I'm taking the country-club developers' environment and taking it to the urban location.

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