Clash over West Street Revisions proposed to face-lift plan going to city officials today

Conflicting instructions

City leaders seeking to avoid a replay of costly Main St. errors

March 31, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Change doesn't come easily in Annapolis -- not when it comes to modernizing a city fiercely protective of its history.

Just ask city officials, who are preparing to launch a multimillion-dollar face lift of a rundown, seven-block stretch of Inner West Street from Church Circle to Taylor Avenue.

Engineers who designed the project, a citizens' committee that reviewed the plans, the mayor and city council members appear to be on a collision course as monumental as the one that jammed improvements to Main Street for months.

The citizens' committee, created by the council, recently suggested major changes to an integral part of the project -- a $4.9 million traffic circle at Taylor and West streets -- worrying the engineers.

"It seems as if the group is trying to micromanage and design this project," said Christopher Goettge, a designer for the Faux Group Inc. of Annapolis, one of the companies involved.

Meanwhile, Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins has let it be known he does not want the committee to make changes in the plans. City Administrator John L. Prehn Jr. showed up at a recent committee meeting to praise its work, but also to prod members toward approving a plan without major alterations. The project cannot be delayed, he said.

But council members "will accept the recommendations of this group," including major changes, said Alderman Louise Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat who urged creation of the group.

All of that leaves committee members wondering to whom they should listen. It is a problem that could lead to a huge battle, they say.

"I don't think the city has learned the lessons of Main Street at all," said Phil Dunn, a developer on the citizens' committee.

To understand the brewing battle over West Street, one must examine what happened with Main Street. Both roads are considered vital to the life of downtown Annapolis. Main Street is the hub of tourism and business, while West Street is key to economic development in a city with limited growth areas.

City officials weathered a storm of criticism three years ago when they unveiled a $5 million plan to repave Main Street, bury utility lines and build wider sidewalks without gauging public opinion.

The bitter fight involving the administration, businesses, residents and the Historic District Commission delayed work, added $279,000 to design costs and forced many shops out of business because construction occurred during the peak tourist season.

"There were lessons to be learned, and we can certainly say we're doing things somewhat differently," Prehn said.

The West Street project is "probably one of the most important projects of this administration because it's the last parcel of land that can be developed in the city for business growth," Prehn said. "We want the best design and engineering efforts possible for the ultimate good of the city."

To that end, the council created the citizens' group last month to allow public discussion of the $13 million project, which includes the traffic circle, burying utility lines, rebuilding sidewalks and repaving streets.

But critics say the group was formed too late, especially because the council approved a preliminary plan for the circle in November. They also accuse the city of lacking vision because the original intent of the circle was merely to improve traffic conditions and made no mention of urban design.

The nine-member committee, made up of well-known architects, developers and engineers in the city, has proposed a number of changes to the original plans -- such as building a 50-foot-wide grassy triangle that would split West Street on the east side of the circle.

The committee's plan would also create a public gathering place on the circular and triangular islands -- an idea that city officials initially rejected. Much debate continues over other aspects of the project, such as the size of sidewalks and buffer zones.

"The city's fears are based on Main Street and, sure, they'll be worried about the process," said Charles Lamb, a member of the Annapolis Planning Commission and the West Street committee. "But, I'm confident the committee will handle this in a very responsible manner."

But plans are about 25 percent complete, and designers say time is running out to make big changes. Anxiety mounts as the date draws near to begin construction. Hopkins has made it no secret that he wants work started by November, one month before his final term in office ends.

Meanwhile, city department heads say they are concerned that any major change proposed by the committee might delay the project and drive up costs. Other officials worry that there isn't enough money to pay for the project as is.

The process also has proved daunting for the design teams from Faux and Hurst-Rosche Engineers Inc. of Cockeysville, who feel they are being second-guessed by the committee.

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