70 acres at ground zero Property: Anne Arundel officials will decide this fall whether to become landlords when David Taylor Research Center closes in 1999.

February 27, 1997|By SCOTT WILSON | SCOTT WILSON,SUN STAFF

For almost a century, the Severn River's north shore has been the site of secrets: a missile silo to protect Washington from Soviet attack, stealth submarine research, early rocketry by Robert Goddard himself.

Now the hilly 70 acres on the Broadneck Peninsula is ground zero for a painstakingly public decision that could turn Anne Arundel leaders into real estate moguls.

The David Taylor Research Center, scheduled to close in June 1999, sits on a promontory that inspires engineers and real estate agents equally to superlative. The view from the World War II-vintage buildings captures the Naval Academy, yacht clubs along Spa Creek and the Chesapeake Bay.

But what to do with the land, which includes a historic fort, an environmental mess of undetermined proportion, and an uptight military as a neighbor?

"Instead of calling it David Taylor they should call it Liz Taylor," says Robin Bosworth, the research center's former commanding officer, who is chairman of a citizens committee reviewing the project. "It's rich and beautiful but it comes with a hell of a lot of baggage."

This week a consulting firm told the county that the property could work for everything from a kind of Club Med on the Severn to a mini-Bell Labs to an area like the Inner Harbor. County Executive John G. Gary is paying almost $200,000 for the consultant's advice to ensure the land stays a money-making venture.

Gary will decide this fall whether the county should pay a price likely to be in the high eight figures for the property. "That's the $64,000 question," said Ernie Shineman, an agent with Champion Commercial Property. "It is one of the most outstanding locations around."

In 1885, Adm. George Melville started asking for money to build a research center near Annapolis that would double as a training ground for midshipmen. He got it 18 years later when Congress approved $400,000 for the Engineering Experiment Station, renamed for the famed naval engineer in 1939.

Over its life, David Taylor has accounted for 15 percent of all Navy patents. It tests and develops submarine-silencing equipment, and other highly technical and secret stuff. Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, set up a small shop on the Severn from 1941 to 1945 to work on jet propulsion. Now it's the cafeteria.

The center has also done business with the private sector. In its huge pressurizing chamber, engineers tested the Alvin submarine that later was used to explore the Titanic on the bottom of the North Atlantic. AT&T's fiber-optic cable destined for the ocean floor was tested in the tank.

Since April, Cmdr. Tom Buckingham, the center's commanding officer, has been selling the research center to the public, anticipating the day two years from now when his operation will be moved to Philadelphia at a cost of $75 million. A peak of 1,400 employees has already dwindled to 400 after two waves of military cutbacks.

"They don't teach you this in the Navy," Buckingham said. "It's funny the things I've had to do: real estate agent, tour guide, promoter."

And the land, beautiful as it is, is also benighted. One study found at least three areas that need to be cleaned. Mercury may have been dumped down drains or spilled into the soil. The Navy has promised to clean up, but residents talk about "an environmental time bomb."

Another problem is the site's shape.

David Taylor is a 42-acre horseshoe rimming a grassy hilltop that will remain the Navy's. At the top of the hill sits Fort Nonsense, a Civil War-era post built to protect Fort Madison from the land side. Madison's guns faced Annapolis harbor. As a protected piece of history, Fort Nonsense will prevent development of about one-third of the property.

The Navy also plans to keep the main road into David Taylor, which leaves future tenants a backdoor entry to the property next to unsightly warehouses and fuel tanks.

If Gary and the County Council decide this fall against becoming landlords of the property, the land will be sold at auction.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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