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Downtown D.C. development holdout saw a likely fortune vanish

Once, developers were offering him millions for his townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue NW. But now, by any measure, Austin Spriggs is a man who missed his champagne moment.

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By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

At the dizzying height of the real estate boom, Austin Spriggs had the equivalent of a golden lottery ticket: a downtown Washington townhouse on precisely the red-hot block where developers hoped to build hundreds of swanky condominiums and offices.

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In and out of his office the developers paraded, offering Spriggs millions for the building that had housed his small architecture firm since 1980. Each time, Spriggs told them no, holding out for more money. Then, as offers dried up, he vowed to turn the place into a pizzeria that would feed newcomers to the once-forgotten strip along Massachusetts Avenue, east of the Washington Convention Center.

At a time when mountains of cash were being made in real estate, Spriggs's resistance became the talk of Washington and beyond.

Four years later, the block-long crater that surrounded Spriggs's building is occupied by glass, steel and brick towers. The pizzeria never opened. Two months ago, after his bank threatened foreclosure, Spriggs put the property up for sale for $1.5 million, nearly half of what one developer had once hoped to pay him.

No offer has been made.

In any life, there can be moments when one's fortune changes in a seismic way, when unforeseen doors open and opportunities bloom. The lynchpin might be a winning lottery ticket or a new job or a piece of real estate everyone wants.

By any measure, Austin Spriggs is a man who missed his Champagne moment.

How Spriggs views his fate is hard to know.

"I don't mean to be impolite, but I'm not going to discuss it," he said in a soft voice before hanging up the phone at his office, which he relocated to Silver Spring. Angela Spriggs, his daughter and business partner, did not return a call seeking comment.

Spriggs's refusal to cash in at the market's peak is an enduring riddle for the developers who tried to persuade him, for anyone chasing that all-too-human dream of chortling all the way to the bank.

"I'm haunted by it," said Jackson Prentice, a broker who on behalf of the Trammell Crow development company said he offered Spriggs $2.75 million for the property, between Fourth and Fifth streets on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

"I said to him, 'Austin: This is like hitting the lottery. It could be something not just for you, but for your whole family,' " Prentice recalled. "I told him, 'You won't see this price again. Once they build around you, you're done.' I kept telling him, but I just couldn't get through."


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