The Phenom

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December 13, 2004 // UPDATED 4:53 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

He's 35 and he's buying up Downtown landmarks. Who is Ned Abdul?

Nedal "Ned" Abdul doesn't exactly look the part of a savvy Downtown developer.

On a recent afternoon in his Warehouse District office, Abdul, 35, sported a T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans instead of the three-piece suit one might expect from an increasingly major player in Downtown's real estate scene.

While Abdul's personal sense of style might cause some to underestimate his business acumen, his business practices reveal him to be an aggressive and shrewd entrepreneur.

Abdul owns Swervo Development, a residential, commercial and industrial real estate development corporation based in Butler Square North, 510 1st Ave. N. The Warehouse District office building is among about a dozen properties the firm owns Downtown.

Swervo is behind several recent Downtown development projects, including condo conversions such as The Lenox, 521 S. 9th St.; the American Trio Lofts, 616 S. 3rd St.; and most recently, the Sexton building, 521 S. 7th St. All are in Elliot Park.

In the Warehouse District, Swervo converted the Architectural Antiques building at 607 Washington Ave. N. to high-end lofts.

Swervo, which operates as a holding company and a developer, also recently took on ownership of the Whitney Hotel on Downtown's riverfront, negotiating with Wells Fargo's Trust Division to acquire the 96-room hotel at 150 Portland Ave. S.

Abdul said the deal is for more than $6 million.

He obtained a sheriff's certificate for the hotel, which confers ownership to Swervo Development on Jan. 29 if the property's current owner, Chicago-based Standard Mills Ltd. Partners, fails to pay off a debt on the building.

Abdul hasn't revealed his plans for the riverfront hotel yet, but said he's considering condos or a boutique hotel.

Besides focusing on condo conversions, Swervo Development is a player in commercial office space, recently partnering with Ken Sherman of Minneapolis-based Sherman Group on a redevelopment of the landmark Lumber Exchange at South 5th Street & Hennepin Avenue. They plan to reposition the historic building to attract new office tenants.

Abdul, who said he once considered condos for the Class B office building, wouldn't disclose the exact amount of the deal but said it was for more than $8 million.

Sherman called Abdul a solid business partner.

"He's very smart. He's not afraid to take risks," Sherman said, adding that on a personal level, he considers Abdul a "lovely guy."

While developers tend to be conservative by nature, Abdul attributes his success in real estate to embracing uncertainty. Although he wouldn't disclose his net worth or that of his business, Abdul said has already earned enough from his real estate ventures to retire comfortably.

Since founding Swervo more than eight years ago, the corporation has acquired more than 2 million square feet of residential and commercial space, Abdul said.

He routinely puts in 12-hour days on the job -- tracking the status of his ventures and scouting out prospective projects.

His development interests extend beyond Minneapolis. He's currently working on a proposal for a 20-story condo tower in Gulf Shores, Ala. and a riverfront residential project in Hudson, Wisc.

Abdul speaks in a short, curt manner while on the phone, an indication of his hectic schedule. In person, however, Abdul is a warm and easygoing guy who prominently displays photos of his three children, sons Jamez, 2; Shakur, 7; and daughter Paris, 15, in his office.

As a counterpoint, a photo of actor Al Pacino in his menacing "Scarface" role also hangs on the wall. He asked not to be photographed for this story.

Abdul is the only one in his family focused on real estate. His father is an Egyptian immigrant who works as a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota.

The entrepreneur grew up in Minneapolis and now lives near Lake Minnetonka.

He got interested in the real estate business after studying business at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He started out in residential development in Minneapolis after college in 1993, rehabilitating old buildings and then selling them for a profit.

Abdul started to acquire more and more properties in his 20s, retaining some properties and selling off others. His main drive in real state is making the acquisition, he said. He routinely sells properties after improving them and repositioning them in the market.

"I enjoy making deals," he said.

Abdul eventually gravitated toward larger scale commercial projects that posed more challenges than apartment rehabs, such as the redevelopment of the old Schlampp's building at Lagoon & Hennepin avenues, which some considered a risky venture.

Swervo bought the 28,597-square-foot property in October 2003 for an undisclosed amount in cash from Al Brown, owner of Cheapo Records, according to the "Minnesota Real Estate Journal."

After a major face-lift, Swervo secured several new tenants for the property, including Zeno Caf/, a dessert bar, and Bilimbi Bay.

The Uptown redevelopment is an example of Swervo's specialty -- acquiring floundering properties and repositioning them as new, more vibrant destinations.

"If there's no negative in a property, there's no opportunity," Abdul said recently from his office. "Risk reaps reward."

Not everything has come up roses. In 1998, Abdul's former partnership, Abdul-Hajj Enterprises, lost its rental license at a 15-unit apartment building at 1826 Chicago Ave. S. in the wake of criminal activity at the property, according to the Star Tribune. Abdul was also implicated in a organized real estate "flipping" scam. Illegal flipping, based on mortgage fraud, involves buying and quickly reselling a property at a falsely inflated price.

At the time, Abdul emphatically denied the charges, saying he spent thousands to improve homes in North Minneapolis that were later resold for considerable profit. Federal criminal charges against him were dismissed in 1999, according to the newspaper.

Since his early years in real estate, Abdul said he's learned some key lessons.

"You have to take one step at a time," he said, adding that he has become more adept at navigating the city's zoning and licensing hurdles. "It's easy to get overwhelmed by projects. Everything is hard work."

In an average year, his firm makes about a 100 real estate acquisitions.

One of Abdul's business partners, Mike Roess, a Coldwell Banker Burnet real estate broker, lauded the developer for his work ethic.

"I do things with Ned on a handshake, and he's never let me down. He just does what he says he's going to do," Roess said. "He understands all sides of real estate -- the value of location. He understands the legal side of the transaction in many cases better than the attorneys I'm dealing with, and he understands what it takes to get the transaction done."

Another business partner and CBB broker, Pat Smith, has worked with Abdul for three years on Downtown projects, including the Lumber Exchange Building most recently.

"He is unique. He's not cut of the same mold as most of the other developers," Smith said. "His biggest strength is his creativity."

Smith said Abdul finds ways improve properties other developers find intimidating or not worth their time, such as the Lagoon & Hennepin avenue redevelopment.

Elliot Park neighborhood leaders also commended Abdul for his work in the neighborhood.

Tom Reid, president of Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI), said he admired the developer's ability to complete projects.

David Fields, EPNI's building, housing and land use coordinator, also complimented Abdul, highlighting his work on the Lenox, saying "he seems to accomplish things while others equivocate and hesitate.

"The Lenox, as far as I can see, is a real success," Fields said. "I expect the Sexton will be, too, although I'll reserve final judgment until we are further along in the process with that building."

As for his thoughts on the future of Downtown, Abdul is optimistic. He predicts the office market will rebound and is excited about the new riverfront Guthrie Theater.

The developer also said he would like to see the community get behind the proposal for a new Twins baseball stadium in the North Loop at the Rapid Park parking lots -- a 30-acre area site between 7th Street, Washington Avenue, North 5th and North 2nd avenues.

"I think the city needs to get behind it," Abdul said. "[The stadium] would bring in so much energy."