Former Mayor's New Title: Homeowner

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

They bugged him. They begged him. Now, following eight years of hectoring and 15 months after leaving office, former mayor Anthony A. Williams has finally gone ahead and bought his first place ever, in the District.

Williams, who raised eyebrows with his staunch determination to remain a renter during his two-term administration, has purchased a luxury loft condominium unit in the revitalizing but still dicey H Street area of Northeast. Last month, he signed a contract for a two-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bathroom unit with a den at Landmark Lofts, the renovated site of the old Capital Children's Museum near Union Station.

Williams said he paid developer Jim Abdo more than $1 million for the second-floor apartment, which sprawls over 2,146 square feet and comes with exposed ductwork, a gourmet kitchen, a library for "all our books," two parking places and a balcony. He and his wife, Diane, who have rented in Foggy Bottom for years, plan to go to settlement and move in later in the spring.

Williams, 56, now chief executive of a real estate investment fund in Arlington, said he never bought property when he was running the city because of "the political and financial pressures. Politically, it was hard trying to pick an area." Aides said the mayor realized that whatever neighborhood he chose would become fodder for public debate, to be chewed over and critiqued.

During a tour of his new apartment in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol yesterday, Williams said it is important for him, as a former mayor, to buy in the District for a "sense of continuum." He said it would have been "untoward and even weird" had he picked another jurisdiction.

Although his wife once owned a condo in St. Louis, this will be Williams's first property purchase, and it is loaded with symbolism. He is buying as the national real estate market is reeling from the credit crisis, and the District's once-booming housing market is suffering a downturn, with condominiums particularly hard-hit. It also comes just before the 40th anniversary of the riots that devastated the H Street corridor of Northeast -- and other commercial strips in the city -- after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Abdo said he has released to family and friends 15 percent of the development's 44 condominium units, which are part of a complex including 432 rental units. He said he did not offer Williams, a close personal friend, a "special discount," but early sales are usually at lower prices. Williams officiated at the marriage of Abdo and his wife, Mai, and the two couples socialize. Williams's deputy mayor for economic development, Eric Price, now works for Abdo.

Williams will have another local celebrity as a neighbor: Sheila Crump Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and believed to be the first African American woman to be worth $1 billion. Johnson recently signed a contract to buy the largest, highest-priced unit. She said she paid more than $2 million. Agents said it will be the highest price ever paid for a condominium near Capitol Hill.

"People said to me, 'This isn't the right market to buy a condo,' " Johnson said yesterday as she selected light fixtures. "But I believe D.C. is a unique market, and I believe in the uniqueness of this project."

Johnson, who said she taught violin to children at the museum in the mid-1970s, said she will use her 3,276-square-foot apartment, with its soaring cathedral ceilings, decorative plaster pilasters and open master bedroom, for entertaining and as her "city pad." Johnson owns homes in Arlington and Middleburg.

The purchases by two such well-known figures as Williams and Johnson cheered residents who have watched the improvements to their neighborhood, and yearned for more.

"It immediately brings more credibility to H Street," said Alan Kimler, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission member for the area. Calling it "great news," he said the neighborhood has had a "healthy momentum going, but there's still lots of room for improvement. There are still vacant properties and boarded-up properties in the area, but they're getting filled in."

Abdo said he thinks the development will help change the area's image.

"I don't want people to think of H Street as just a riot corridor," he said. "It's too important to this city for that."

Johnson, part owner of the Washington Mystics basketball team along with the Washington Capitals and Wizards, said she would not have bought the condo if she did not believe in the "upside potential" of the H Street area.

Williams also said he considers his future home a good investment.

"I have an understanding of this city," he said, pointing out where he wants to put his grand piano in the living room. "This is the place to invest, or I wouldn't be here."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company