Triumph for Downtown Annapolis

January 13, 1994

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Annapolis Historic District Commission has been holding the heart of the city in the palm of its hand. Had the commission refused to approve plans to expand the Anne Arundel County courthouse and thus keep it downtown, it would have drained the lifeblood from that heart.

The commission delayed long enough to make us worry. In the end, though, it did the right thing, allowing the county to proceed with the $43 million expansion before County Executive Robert R. Neall leaves office and his successor gets a chance to move the courthouse elsewhere. This means the city -- which has already lost many municipal buildings to Rowe Boulevard and Riva Road -- no longer has to worry about losing the courthouse traffic which fuels the center city business district. It means downtown will continue to be a real, working place, not a museum.

The courthouse annex is the largest structure the commission has ever been asked to consider, and it should be commended for having the courage to approve it. The panel took its share of criticism for threatening to kill the courthouse by dissecting the design, but it was reasonable enough to know when to stop fussing over details and start cooperating with city and county officials to make sure this project gets built.

Not to take anything from the commission or from Mayor Alfred Hopkins, who has steadily pushed to keep the courthouse downtown, but the bulk of the credit must go to Mr. Neall. When he was elected in 1990, tentative plans were to build a new courthouse across from the Arundel Center, slightly farther from the city's core, with the Arundel Center being converted to offices for courthouse staff.

It would have been easier to build where no one was going to argue about height restrictions, brickwork or the number of windows. But Mr. Neall, realizing that moving the courthouse off Church Circle would hurt the state capital's downtown, chose to face the challenge of designing a municipal building that would meet the county's needs and pass muster with preservationists.

The design the commission approved last week may not win raves from architectural critics. But it is an attractive, competent answer to a difficult challenge. Annapolis owes a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped make it a reality.

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