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

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010; A01

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.

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."

Spriggs's attorney, Clayborne Chavers, said his client had hoped to "take advantage of the neighborhood's evolution" and had counted on his property's value growing "by leaps and bounds."

"He had an emotional attachment to the property. He wanted to see his family have a viable business there, and he wanted to rise with that value," he said.

The family's plan for a Ledo Pizza franchise died during a renovation of the building, when workers discovered a crack in the foundation (which its real-estate agent said has since been repaired). The family became embroiled in a dispute with Adams National Bank, which claims that the Spriggses defaulted on a $1.3 million loan.

Charles York, the real-estate agent selling the property, said he has received numerous inquiries from potential investors. "What happened with Spriggs? Who the heck knows -- it's irrelevant," York said. The property, he said, is a "tremendous opportunity," even with missing windows, paint-peeling brick and gaping holes in the rear walls.

For $1.5 million?

Douglas Jemal, a developer whose projects helped revive downtown, snorted at the thought. "Never going to happen in a million years," he said.

Here's why, Jemal and other developers say: The parcel, at nearly 1,800 square feet, is too small to accommodate underground parking. The building was constructed in 1890 and needs a total renovation, and it already is dwarfed by two massive complexes.

Of course, there's also the real-estate market, which has cooled more than a touch in these post-bubble years.

Ilya Zusin is part of a development team that was willing to pay $715,000 when Adams National Bank sold the building at a foreclosure auction last fall. But the transaction was not completed, Zusin said, because the Spriggs family contested the foreclosure.

"He missed the streetcar of cash," said Prentice, a District broker for 38 years who has invoked Spriggs and shown photos of his property during negotiations with other holdouts. "I tell them, 'You don't want this to happen to you.' "

Thirty years ago, when Spriggs and his wife, Gladys, paid $135,000 for the two-story brick building, Massachusetts Avenue east of Mount Vernon Square was defined by decrepit buildings, vacant lots, the homeless and prostitutes. But with the opening of the Convention Center in 2003, the strip became the District's newest gold coast.

Developers scooped up every inch, it seemed, except for Spriggs's building. To one developer who offered him $1.5 million, Spriggs asked for five to 10 times that amount. Spriggs also demanded that he be included as the architect on the company's project. The builder turned him down.

After word of his resistance spread far and wide, Spriggs held a news conference to announce that he was opening a Ledo franchise, and the family started a company, AMS Blue Skies LLC. "We want to give back to the community," he told reporters in 2006. "Taking the money would be easy. We want to do the hard thing in life."

But their renovation project floundered. Then, according to the family's attorney, Adams National Bank cut off their loan, which prevented them from compensating contractors and resuming the renovation. The Spriggses, who are black, believe that the bank discriminated against them, and they're "contemplating" a multimillion-dollar civil rights suit against Adams National, Chavers said.

Joel Aronson, an attorney for the bank, said his client would not comment.

In the meantime, developer types throw around ideas for the spot. A cafe could work, perhaps, or a bar or restaurant.

Whatever opens, Cary Silverman of the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association said, he has the perfect name: "The Holdout," an eternal reminder to anyone and everyone "to not make unreasonable demands."

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