Leaks, mold, broken elevators plague 6-year-old city building

April 15, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

No sooner had the city's new municipal office building opened six years ago than the elevators began to break down, walls leaked, pipes froze, ceilings fell and mold grew inside the walls.

Today, dozens of workers say they are sickened by mysterious fumes, the heating system fluctuates wildly, and pigeon droppings litter an air shaft.

For this building -- at 417 E. Fayette Street near City Hall -- taxpayers paid $29 million at the close of then-mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration.

The Charles L. Benton Jr. Municipal Building, named for the city's powerful finance director from 1965 to 1986, has become a maintenance nightmare for a city struggling to repair scores of aging buildings.

And it's become a tired joke among city workers who get stuck in its elevators, wear coats indoors and complain that the building makes them sick.

In 1992, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke sent 1,200 workers home for two days when nearby subway construction caused underground gas fumes to permeate the building. The state's Mass Transit Administration spent $150,000 drilling holes in the building to allow the vapors to escape.

"I can't remember anybody ever being happy with the building," said George G. Balog, city public works director, who is now saddled with the headache of fixing the other problems, which are costing the city more than $100,000.

The 14-story building contains the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, Board of Elections, zoning offices, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the Mayor's Office of Employment Development and the Department of Planning.

Mr. Balog said the structure lacks proper insulation and has a malfunctioning heating and air conditioning system with uncontrollable temperatures.

Last month, the city's Board of Estimates released $90,000 to pay a private company to clean up the mold growing inside the building's outer walls where water leaked inside from balconies.

Mr. Balog said the city also is planning to spend $62,000 to repair structural defects in the balconies.

Jesse Hoskins, the city personnel director who also oversees occupational safety and health, said his office is investigating complaints from employees who have developed health problems from fumes in various parts of the building.

"We are taking this very seriously and are exploring all the complaints. We are surveying 41 employees and asking them about their health," he said, adding that the city solicitor advised him not to provide any details.

Alexander Jones, an official with the City Union of Baltimore, said 15 to 20 workers have complained to the union about air quality causing hives, headaches and burning eyes on the first, second and third floors.

Donald Small, superintendent of zoning administration and enforcement, said a strange varnish scent in his first-floor corner office gives him a headache and flu-like symptoms.

"By mid-day you feel pretty beat. Two hours after I leave here the symptoms dissipate," said Mr. Small, who has worked for the city for 20 years.

In January, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said she discovered sprinkler system pipes had frozen and burst on the second floor when a housing inspector apologized for not supplying information to her because the ceiling had caved in on his computer.

She visited the building and found city housing inspectors huddled in their coats, like the tenants who call them to complain that landlords have left them without heat.

One floor below, water-saturated ceiling tiles fell on zoning office files, narrowly missing a computer.

Mrs. Clarke wrote to Mayor Schmoke that city workers "deserve the assurance of humane working conditions which, at this point, they have not received."

The city's new planning director, Charles C. Graves, moved out of his eighth-floor office recently for two weeks while workers sprayed a substance there to eliminate a mold growing inside the wall caused by water damage from an outside balcony.

The heating and air conditioning system fluctuates so wildly from hot to cold that Mr. Balog said he is considering hiring a private company to overhaul the air system and bring down maintenance and utility costs.

In 1986, the city hired BCI Contractors -- headed by the politically influential developer Victor Frenkil -- to oversee construction of the building, which was built around a three-story parking garage. The city purchased the property from the family of the late Northwest Baltimore political leader James "Jack" Pollack.

Mr. Balog said the deficiencies in the air and electrical systems may stem from the decision to construct the building around the garage.

"To build a building around a garage is suspect," said Mr. Balog. "We had a lot of apprehensions from the beginning and we knew we'd have problems."

The building was the brainchild of the city trustees, who functioned as the financial arm of the administration of then-mayor Schaefer. The trustees doled out millions in tax dollars to developers with plans to rebuild the city.

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