Douglas Jemal leans back in his chair, rubs his bald head front to back with his fingertips, and smiles. He is sitting in his office at Douglas Development, surrounded by antique glass medicine bottles, Depression-era D.C. license plates and a photo of his father, Norman. Nearby is Eagle, an African gray parrot old enough to rent a car. Eagle lives in a cage by Jemal’s desk, among assorted other birds. Long ago, Jemal taught the bird that when he yells, “F--- you, Eagle!” the bird should return in kind.
It’s after lunch on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-July, and Jemal — now 74 and one of Washington’s most influential developers — is recounting for me the story of how his company came back from the brink. Six years ago, Douglas Development was drowning in millions of dollars in debt to bankers, tax collectors and general contractors. Jemal, his right-hand man, Paul Millstein, and sons Norman and Matthew had been warding off debt collectors as best they could for more than two years. They laid off staff and watched every penny to save the firm from becoming a carcass to be picked apart by competitors. “I was literally sitting on a tightrope because I had no place to go,” Jemal recalls. “And everyone was sitting there salivating, hoping I would lose my company so they could buy my properties.”
Nonetheless that summer Jemal dropped a bomb on Millstein and his sons: He had bought a vacant warehouse on a dreary, traffic-riddled stretch of New York Avenue NE, in the partially industrial neighborhood of Ivy City, for $20 million. He hadn’t consulted them. He hadn’t figured out what he would do with the building — the old Hecht Warehouse — before he bought it, as most other developers would. He hadn’t even gone to look inside it. Matthew, who was 24 at the time and who like his father had dropped out of high school to go into business, had no idea whether the purchase was even possible: “We were in the middle of six years of pain. I was thinking, ‘How the hell are we going to buy this?’ ”
But his father was convinced the warehouse — a standout example of art deco design, built in 1937 — was key to turning around Ivy City, best known at the time for hosting a bus depot, a juvenile detention center and a long-vacant historic school building. The warehouse had been abandoned after an out-of-town developer lost it to foreclosure. Like an old lady who takes in just one more stray cat, Jemal couldn’t let the building go.
Conventional banks, however, were still recovering from the financial crisis and would not go near the project. So he turned for a loan to a longtime partner, a group that provides insurance and other services to military veterans. And on a wintry morning in 2014, in a tent erected on a bare concrete floor inside the warehouse, he joined then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and a clutch of other city officials to mark the start of renovations. While making his remarks, Jemal called Millstein up and likened them to a couple of old outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “We’re going to die in a fury. We’re going to ride that g--d--- train off a cliff. We’ll never say no, and we’re never, never, never going to stop,” Jemal said as the crowd laughed awkwardly.
Soon enough, the warehouse would be converted into apartments, with a massive Nike store on the ground floor. And it would join a string of bets, some made decades earlier, that were finally paying off for Doug Jemal. In Adams Morgan, he turned a domed former roller rink into a grocery store and apartments. In Shaw, he turned a former Twinkie factory into co-working offices. Behind Union Station, he turned the former Uline Arena — site of the Beatles’ first concert in the United States, and later a garbage truck storage facility — into a flagship store for specialty outdoor retailer REI.
“I think of Doug as a collector more than anything else,” says award-winning Washington architect Shalom Baranes, who has done more than a dozen projects with Jemal. “He doesn’t look at a property and do what a lot of developers do, which is a quick financial analysis. ... He looks at it, and if it appeals to him the way an antique might, he buys it.”
Today, you can stand at the corner of Seventh and H streets NW, outside of Jemal’s office, look in any direction, and see his fingerprints on some of Washington’s most distinctive blocks. Douglas Development now owns about 240 properties, about 150 of them in the District, and has 5 million square feet of projects in the works. All of this has made Jemal a wealthy man, though he is cagey about just how wealthy. Published estimates of his net worth start at $150 million. The last time I asked him for a ballpark figure, he reminded me that he drives a 1994 Ford Taurus to work every day. “I’ll be written down in every history book of Washington, D.C., forever,” he says. “Fifty years from now they’ll say, ‘That’s a Douglas building, that’s a Jemal building.’ So how do you put a price on something like that?”
His impact on his adopted city has indeed been significant — and distinct from most other D.C. developers of this era. Washington is in the midst of a gilded age, awash in money and new residents, the opposite of 20 years ago, when it was under the thumb of a financial control board and its population was shrinking. Gas stations, carwashes and carryouts have been replaced by single-drip coffee bars, boutique hotels, cycling studios and often indistinguishable upscale condos — creating canyons of eye-glazing blandness. Yet here and there, some vestiges of the city’s architectural character have survived these changes. When that has happened, it has been, more often than not, because of Doug Jemal’s stubborn devotion to preserving old, decrepit buildings — as well as his highly unconventional, sometimes outrageous methods of getting his way.
I drop by Douglas Development’s offices for another visit in late July. On an end table in a waiting room near Jemal’s office, the developer keeps a metal vise the size of an anvil. “I like it because everybody said, ‘You have big balls, Douglas,’ ” he explained later. “I said I’m going to put my balls in there one day.”
I join Jemal in a conference room. He’s dressed in his usual uniform: cowboy boots, jeans, a bright green shirt unbuttoned at the top, with a white undershirt and a gold chain showing at the neck. (I have covered Jemal and his company for 10 years and have never seen him in a suit and tie.) He starts telling me about the importance of loyalty, one of his favorite topics. His Brooklyn accent is undiminished by five decades of living 200-plus miles south of the Verrazano Bridge.
Soon after I arrive, his receptionist escorts in friend and business partner Anthony Harrigan. Outside it’s 98 degrees and a million percent humidity, and Harrigan is sweating. He looks more the part of a developer: mid-60s, coifed gray hair, in a dress shirt and tie. “I’m sorry I’m wet,” Harrigan says, knowing Jemal will hug him. Harrigan is from Charleston, S.C., and is here to persuade Jemal to come down and see an abandoned naval hospital. It’s close to 400,000 square feet, or about the size of two Walmarts, on 24 acres between downtown and the airport.
“I just need to get you down there for the day,” Harrigan says. “Get your juices flowing.” “Is it a decent building, the hospital, the bones of it? The looks of it?” Jemal asks. He knows nothing about Charleston. “The looks are ugly. It needs a skin,” Harrigan says. Jemal takes out his phone, puts on his eyeglasses, Googles the property and starts reading from an article about a previous company’s failed attempt to develop it, followed by foreclosure. “It has my name on it!” Jemal says. Harrigan points out it has no air conditioning and is located in a poorer community with no grocery store. This only seems to make Jemal more interested.
“It’s a beautiful property,” Jemal says. “Windows on four sides. Six minutes away from the airport. ... This intrigues me, because it was abandoned, and it failed and it failed and it failed, and it really takes someone who knows what they’re doing to put it back together again.” He hands me his phone and tells me to email the article (perhaps because he doesn’t know how to?) to Jack Brownell, his accounting manager. I glance at the screen and see a building that looks like a giant white radiator. Brownell comes in a few moments later with the name and number of the banker handling the deal. Jemal dials and turns on the speakerphone. When the banker picks up, Jemal introduces his company and his interest in the old hospital. The banker says it won’t come cheap. Jemal tells him he’ll be in touch and hangs up. Just then, as if sensing something is happening, Millstein pops into the conference room. “We’re going to Charleston, baby!” Jemal yells and hugs him.
Jemal arrived in the District at the age of 23, married with a baby girl. He chose Washington, a city he had never been to, because his daughter had been born on George Washington’s birthday. He had left school after the ninth grade to help his father, an Egyptian American father of eight, sell general merchandise at 245 Broadway in Manhattan; now he wanted to open his own store. Jemal signed a lease for 601 Seventh St. NW, where Capital One Arena is today. He wrote a check for a month’s rent — $1,333.34, he recalls off the top of his head — and a security deposit. He didn’t have the money, but back then a check could take up to a week or so to clear. Over the next several days Jemal bought as much merchandise as he could on credit at wholesale markets, then borrowed a tractor-trailer (without notifying the owner) to haul it to the city. Once the store opened, Jemal raced back to the bank in New York with the money he made in time for the checks to clear.
Jemal’s shop, Bargaintown D.C., became a go-to spot for clothing, home goods and eventually cheap electronics. He was there when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots erupted along Seventh Street. “When I watched downtown fall apart, it was terrible,” Jemal told Washington City Paper in 2001. “Back then, it was a happening, vibrant neighborhood that was full of life and shops and people. It was wonderful, it was magical, and then suddenly it was gone.” After security patrols came to his store and told him to evacuate, he mounted his motorcycle and rode through the burning streets to Silver Spring, Md., where he lived at the time. “People were throwing things at me. I was jumping onto sidewalks, I was riding on lawns,” he told me. “But I made it.”
He closed Bargaintown in 1971 because of Metro construction and opened two electronics stores called Douglas Stereo. He also produced a few albums, including the single “War on the Bulls--t”by local funk band Osiris.
In 1976, he co-founded the discount electronics chain the Wiz in New York City with brothers Lawrence, Marvin and Stephan. By the early 1990s, they had dozens of stores, 2,000 employees across seven states and $1 billion in annual revenue. At some point, they changed the name to Nobody Beats the Wiz, the advertising slogan from their memorably hyper TV commercials that hawked “unreal!” prices for the latest boombox or VCR. (There’s even a “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine dumps a guy after learning he has resumed making Nobody Beats the Wiz TV spots.)
In the ’80s, Jemal started buying buildings where he used to be a tenant because, he says, “everyone that had money had real estate. Big landlords were smoking these big cigars, driving these big Cadillacs. I was driving a [Dodge] Polara and living in a s---hole.”
Then in 1993, he set his sights on a bigger target. With a brand-new ballpark and Cal Ripken Jr. playing shortstop, the Baltimore Orioles were headed to auction, courtesy of a bankrupt owner. “Douglas comes marching in my office one morning and says, ‘Jack, I want to buy the Baltimore Orioles. Let’s write a letter,’ ” recalls Jack Brownell, Jemal’s treasurer. Jemal began saying publicly he would pay $170 million for the team, despite having hardly any money in the bank and most experts saying the team was not worth that much. But Jemal persuaded Major League Baseball officials to include him as a final bidder, entitling him, Norman and Millstein to a seat near home plate at the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore.
Late in the game, some unruly fans behind them (led by a man whom Millstein described as a “6-foot-4, 300-pound longshoreman in overalls with a ZZ Top beard”) began cursing at the game even though, as Jemal describes it, children were nearby. When Jemal asked ZZ Top and his friends to be more considerate, they cursed him out, too. Jemal then handed Millstein his beeper, and, “very quietly, he turns around, and punches up at this monster,” Millstein recalls. “These guys just came down on us. It was a blur because it was coming from every angle.” The Jemals and Millstein were soundly beaten and escorted from the stadium by security. The next morning, they had an appointment with a dozen bankers interested in financing his bid for the team — inconvenient timing in light of Jemal’s missing two front teeth and head full of welts. On top of that, during the meeting, Eagle the parrot kept enthusiastically yelling, “F--- you.”
Ultimately, Jemal’s bid fell through when his brothers wouldn’t support the purchase, a betrayal in his eyes from which his family never recovered. “They really did think we were crazy,” Millstein says. A group led by trial lawyer Peter Angelos paid $173 million for the Orioles, now worth more than $1 billion, according to Forbes. In 1994, Jemal’s brothers pushed him out at the Wiz and, three years later, filed for bankruptcy. The Wiz shut down. Doug Jemal went into real estate full time.
Angel Brunner, an urban planner and investor, remembers that when she arrived in Washington in 1999, most of the areas that had gone up in flames during the 1968 riots were still struggling. She took notice of Jemal’s projects moving east — into Shaw, Gallery Place and H Street NE — before she ever heard his name. She has since raised funds for two of them. “At that time it was really a tale of two cities, and when you asked around about who was investing in these other neighborhoods, the only name that came up was his,” she told me. “Every corridor, every neighborhood that has been revitalized, Douglas was there first.” Or as developer Jim Abdo puts it: “I think I’m like Doug in that I fall in love with old buildings and I just have to have them and I never want to sell them, but I’ve never seen somebody who falls in love that often.”
Plenty of other people took notice of Jemal as well. It was hard not to. Between the Brooklyn accent, the steady stream of f-bombs and the disdain for formality, he was a favorite interview among reporters. “My whole opinion of the real estate business is it’s ass-backwards,” he told The Washington Post’s Maryann Haggerty in 1997. “People use what are called cap rates” — a common financial analysis for calculating building prices. “My answer to that is if I want caps, I’m going to go to a dentist.”
It wasn’t just bluster. Among the many examples of Jemal’s I-did-it-my-way tactics that he shared with me is the time he felt wronged by his partner on his first major development, the renovation of the 1930s-era Park and Shop in Cleveland Park. Jemal threatened to demolish the entire retail strip and then turn himself in to the police. (Joe Cayre, the former partner, confirmed the story.) When he needed a loan to buy one of his earliest buildings, Jemal says he got a banker so drunk that he “peed in the street” before the man signed a commitment letter. When one executive rebuffed his pleas to open a store, Jemal says he secured the deal by dramatically discounting the rent and taking the executive for an after-hours massage-parlor session — a visit Jemal described using a term that is not family-friendly.
Competitors grumble privately that Jemal wields his clout with historic preservation advocates — whom he has given tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of support — to scuttle their projects. In 2014, he joined the DC Preservation League in opposing the International Spy Museum’s plans to move into the Carnegie Library building across from the convention center. He said he was acting out of concern for the former library’s historical character, but at the time museum officials were negotiating their way out of one of his buildings. The Carnegie deal failed. Similarly, not long ago, when Jemal and rival Michael Darby of Monument Realty were buying up portions of the same block north of Capital One Arena, the Preservation League aggressively opposed Monument’s plans, ultimately weakening its position compared to Jemal’s. When I asked Darby about this, he texted back: “I’m not eager to say anything negative about [Jemal] on the record.” Jemal said the same about Darby and didn’t want to talk about what happened.
Rebecca Miller, executive director of the Preservation League, told me Jemal deserves credit for showing “city leaders, developers and the public that historic buildings can be valuable, can be marketable and can enhance this city.” Asked about his generous support of the league, she says it makes “logical sense” that he would invest in a group whose mission aligned with his interests. Jemal says the group supports him because he does more to save historic buildings than any other developer.
That sort of loyalty may also stem from the years Jemal and preservationists spent in the city planning wilderness. It’s hard to imagine now, when a vacant rowhouse in a still-transitioning D.C. neighborhood can easily fetch a half-million dollars, but for a long time, few people believed that fixing up a crumbling eyesore (as opposed to demolishing it) would ultimately make the surrounding area more valuable. When Jemal bid to buy the 19th-century Woodies building on F Street NW in 1999, he was the only one, Baranes told me, who proposed keeping the entire building intact, rather than slicing a courtyard or cutout into it. Jemal insisted that his approach would attract more people. “His gut feeling was just correct even though it violated every instinct everyone else had,” Baranes says.
Despite his what-you-see-is-what-you-get persona, Jemal has not completely quelled speculation about one thing: where he gets his financing. He maintains that he usually rolls the profits of one project into the next and relies on conventional lenders for the remainder. When that’s not feasible, he says, he has a small number of long-standing investors who are willing to finance his projects much more quickly than, say, an investment bank would.
In the early aughts, however, all of Jemal’s operations came under public scrutiny over his relationship with a former D.C. property management official named Michael Lorusso. The D.C. Council held hearings on Lorusso’s activity; Jemal appeared but refused to testify, invoking the Fifth Amendment. Lorusso later pleaded guilty in federal court to agreeing to have the city buy a property Jemal owned in Prince George’s for three times its appraised value and issuing millions of dollars in other payments to Douglas Development. (Lorusso did not respond to requests for comment.) In 2005, federal agents raided the company’s office. “I was in the office on my 18th birthday, and the FBI came in,” recalls Matthew, the younger of Jemal’s two sons. “I didn’t even realize there was much of an investigation going on.” The U.S. attorney’s office accused Jemal and his son Norman of plying Lorusso with a Rolex watch, $1,000 in car repairs, limousine rides, box tickets to Washington Wizards and Capitals games, $543-a-night rooms at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and a pair of cowboy boots (of course). In September 2005, a federal grand jury indicted father and son and the company’s leasing executive on conspiracy, bribery, fraud and tax evasion charges.
Doug Jemal admitted no wrongdoing. He hired top-shelf white-collar defense lawyer Reid H. Weingarten and — in a reflection of the gravity of the situation — wore a suit to court. During the seven-week trial in fall 2006, all of his warts were on display. Prosecutors called him “little more than a common thief” and detailed his unwieldy financial status, in which the company’s main bank account seesawed from a high of $1.14 million to a deficit of $219,728 in a two-week period, leading to bounced checks. On the stand, Lorusso relayed long nights of drinking grapefruit-and-vodka cocktails with the developer at the Capital Grille. Jemal’s defense was that he had done nothing wrong and that he was generous and loyal to friends but hadn’t bribed anyone.
His supporters — partners, investors, recipients of his charitable giving — packed the courtroom and an overflow room. Among them was a young Jared Kushner, whose father, Charles Kushner — a neighbor of Jemal’s vacation home on the Jersey Shore — had received a two-year prison sentence the previous year for his own misdeeds. (When the elder Kushner went to prison, Jemal gave his German shepherd to Jared’s mother, Seryl, for protection. A White House official confirmed this story.) On the eve of sentencing, Jared Kushner wrote a letter to the judge in support of Jemal.
In the end, jurors mostly believed Jemal, acquitting him on six of seven charges but convicting him on wire fraud charges stemming from his financial machinations. His former leasing pro Blake Esherick was convicted of wire fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to eight months in prison. Millstein and Jack Brownell, who were indicted about the same time as Jemal, pleaded guilty to tax evasion, but neither served time behind bars. Norman was acquitted of all charges.
Mark H. Dubester, the lead prosecutor on the case, says the trial was “unusually contentious” but that “on a personal level, I’m satisfied. The jury spoke.” But at sentencing, things seemed to go Jemal’s way. He told U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina: “I care about buildings that have been abandoned and left alone. And I care about people who’ve been abandoned and left alone. I care very much about this adopted city of mine.” Urbina said it was “inconceivable” that the then-64-year-old developer should get jail time, fined him $175,000 and gave him probation. Jemal wept and hugged several jurors as they left the courthouse.
In the years since the trial, bankers have walked away from deals with Douglas Development because of the convictions. Norman raises the issue himself without being asked when meeting with potential partners or investors. “Losing some money is not nearly as frightening as being on trial with the specter of a lot of time,” Norman says. “After that, not a lot’s going to scare you.”
Despite the many supporters who turned out, there were others who kept their distance. And Doug Jemal now identifies as an outsider to a degree that borders on paranoia. “I was never welcomed in the club,” he says. “Maybe I don’t talk right, maybe my accent’s not right, maybe I don’t look right, maybe I don’t dress right. I don’t know what it is. I don’t particularly like that kind of crowd of uppities, and they don’t really like me.”
He is no longer a fixture at bars and restaurants around Penn Quarter and in recent years has retreated to a smaller circle consisting mostly of his family. He keeps a condo for himself downtown not far from the office but otherwise lives in a house in Annapolis with his dogs. He sees his wife and four daughters, who live in the New York-New Jersey area, on weekends. While Norman and Matthew have taken on more responsibilities, Doug still chases deals. As Washington has become more polished and pricey, he has started to look elsewhere. Last year he plopped down $12.6 million for the tallest building in Buffalo, a vacant skyscraper called One Seneca Tower. Soon after, Jemal got a new parrot — his fourth — and named it Buffalo Bill. (When he told Norman about the building purchase, his son, who handles financing for projects, replied: “There’s no stopping you. What the f--- are we doing in Buffalo?”)
And then there’s Ivy City. The most important part of a project to Jemal is always the ground floor. At heart, he says, he is still a retailer looking to draw customers. A signature part of his strategy as a developer — plus a big reason he was in so much trouble for so long after the financial crisis — is his habit of holding out for certain retailers, even if it means keeping a property vacant for years. For seven years he has hounded the popular supermarket chain Wegmans to open at New York and Montana avenues NE, a rough-looking intersection at the edge of Ivy City that thousands of people traveling from Interstate 95 to downtown pass daily. Until Jemal bought it, the 16-acre property was a central taxicab depot. Now it’s empty, surrounded by vacant buildings, a homeless shelter and fast-food joints. There’s no historic building to save, but the project appeals to Jemal because previous developers have failed to turn that corner around. Jemal plans to build more than 1,500 apartments, a hotel, 3,000 parking spaces, shops and restaurants on the site.
Early on, he, Millstein and Matthew pitched Wegmans using traditional means: slide shows of their plans and a guided tour of the property and nearby Union Market. But when Wegmans executive Paul Gilbert turned them down, Jemal threw out the PowerPoint. He bought a building in Rochester, N.Y., where Gilbert worked, sight unseen, just to have an excuse to run into the supermarket exec. (He still owns it.) Then, in May, after Gilbert had rebuffed Jemal a few more times, Wegmans signed with a competing developer backed by private equity giant BlackRock for a site on Wisconsin Avenue NW near the Tenleytown Metro station.
Around the same time, Jemal learned Gilbert had terminal cancer. He died in July. Jemal and Millstein attended the memorial service, where Jemal says Gilbert’s family welcomed them. Whatever grocery store Jemal ends up with in Ivy City, he tells me, there will be a private drive named for Gilbert.
Jemal says he’s happy for the other developer. And he has not given up on wooing Wegmans to Ivy City. “It’s never over!” he exclaims. He gets agitated, though, when I ask him what it is like to lose a deal to one of the corporate juggernauts newly pouring money into Washington after he’s been here for so long. Jemal points his thick finger at me. “Anyone can buy a piece of property and f--- a piece of property up and prostitute a piece of property,” he roars. “But can somebody take something and create a neighborhood and an area? Can someone create the Douglas factor?”
Jonathan O’Connell is a staff writer at The Washington Post.
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