Battle over agency site highlights issues dividing city, Baltimore County

HCFA: SUSPENSE IS BUILDING

May 03, 1992|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

They are 12 minutes apart by car and yet worlds apart. One is downtown next to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the other in Woodlawn by split-level houses and a Ms. Desserts "Whoops" shop. One is a parking lot today, the other an empty field.

But one of these patches of ground will be the next home of the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration, the agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid. The estimated $100 million building in HCFA's future has officials and developers in the city and Baltimore County scrambling like high school boys after the same girl.

"It's significant to the county because you're taking a major employer away and devastating that part of Baltimore County," said James F. Knott, president of James F. Knott Development Corp. in Towson, one of two firms leading the bid to keep HCFA, now based in Woodlawn, in the suburbs. "We're supposed to have regionalism."

That, however, is hard to swallow for the Columbia-based Rouse Co., which is leading the development team trying to persuade the government to move HCFA downtown.

"I'd like to know how many of those 29,000 jobs lost to Baltimore City last year were lost to the county," counters Daniel P. Henson III, a Baltimore developer who, along with Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., is Rouse's partner in the city bid. "The Social Security Administration wasn't always in Woodlawn. It used to be in the city."

The HCFA issue pushes many of the city's and county's latent opinions of each other to the surface. All of the issues that have marked the decades-long exodus of people and corporations from cities to the suburbs are on the table -- traffic, congestion, parking, the "quality of life."

And, although Mr. Knott and his development team haven't raised it, many of HCFA's estimated 2,800 employees -- who like the suburbs -- are eager to talk about crime.

"CRIME, CRIME, CRIME -- It may never happen to me," wrote HCFA employee Kathy Shaffer, in a letter to the U.S. General Services Administration released last month as part of the environmental impact statement on the project.

"But my gut feeling (fed by myriad newspaper and TV news reports) is that if HCFA moves downtown, my chance of being a victim of crime leaps tremendously," she wrote.

THe GSA makes the decision on where HCFA goes, and it is

expected to act in August. The fight over HCFA has become a very big fight, because the HCFA project is a very, very big deal.

"There's no one project this size around here," Mr. Knott said. "This is the biggest project around here in 10 years."

Rouse's plan, for the block just north of the new stadium across from the Marriott Inner Harbor hotel, calls for a 22-story, 919,000-square-foot building plus a 713-space parking garage in the next block to the west. By comparison, the office building alone is bigger than all four of the office towers that Rouse built next to the Owings Mills mall in the late 1980s combined, Rouse Vice President Robert Minutoli said.

Knott would build 875,000 square feet spread among three office buildings and a warehouse. The biggest would be six stories tall, the other office buildings three stories.

The site Knott and partner Boston Properties control is tucked in behind a residential enclave near Dogwood and Rolling roads.

Each side thinks its site is terrific, and each is probably right -- if you like what they're selling.

For fans of corporate campuses, the Woodlawn site is big enough to build a fine one -- and between Knott and Boston Properties Inc., the development team is experienced enough to build one of the best.

For fans of downtown locations, Rouse's project would define the western edge of the city's Pratt Street promenade, with an L-shaped building designed to make the project stand out as the end of the city's de facto main street. And Rouse has made a national reputation for its urban projects, including Harborplace, Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York's South Street Seaport.

The question is what the GSA thinks, and GSA isn't saying. All GSA will say is what the standards are -- and even most of those, depending on whether you look at them from a suburban or an urban perspective, can be interpreted to favor either side.

First and most important to GSA is building quality, which includes both the architecture and the nuts and bolts such as lighting and air conditioning systems. Next is the impact of each site on employees and on the public's access to HCFA. The third factor is the experience and management plan of the development teams.

The last, and supposedly least important, is "national headquarters identity." But both the Knott side and the Rouse side rise to that issue like fish to bait. The question is: What is headquarters identity anyway, at this late stage of the nation's city-to-suburb exodus?

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