Courthouse Must Stay Downtown ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

June 15, 1993

The Annapolis Historic District Commission is jeopardizing the future of downtown by making unrealistic demands about the design for the new county courthouse expansion.

The courthouse must stay downtown. The center city business district, at least on weekdays year-round, depends on courthouse traffic. Without functioning municipal buildings, the historic district becomes little more than a museum. Yet at least one panel member said she is willing to see the courthouse move rather than have a structure large enough to serve the county's needs.

Last week, the panel approved an architect's plan for a 250,000-square-foot expansion of the 1824 courthouse on Church Circle. At the same time, it said the building proposed is too large. One can only presume that commission members want the expansion to be big enough inside to house all the courtrooms, offices etc., but look smaller on the outside. They also complained that the building doesn't blend with the surrounding structures and that there aren't enough "green spaces."

The architects are working to come up with a design acceptable to the commission, which has the power to veto the project. The question is, what exactly does the panel have in mind? If the members are set on a smallish, quaint, compact building, the project is in trouble. County officials simply are not going to accept a half-baked solution to court overcrowding, nor should they.

The expansion is bound to be big. As designed, it takes up most of the block. Still, the architects have done their best to make it seem less huge than it is. They've buried two levels as far underground as possible given the water table. Though the commission agreed last fall to relax height restrictions for the annex, they have kept it lower than the old courthouse. The annex exterior -- brick with windows and stone cornices -- certainly sounds like it would work in the historic district.

This is only a conceptual plan, and no doubt there is room for improvement. But the county has only a few weeks to haggle over this if it hopes to stay on schedule for an August 1994 groundbreaking. The commission must be reasonable, and see that the difference between a large courthouse and none at all may be the difference between life and death of the historic business district.

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