Public buildings in need of repairs

Designs from '70s no longer functional, await modernizing

January 17, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Like the platform shoes and polyester shirts that symbolize the era, Howard County's government buildings in Ellicott City are vintage 1970s -- and they're showing their age.

Built with sweeping open spaces and dramatic exterior designs, they predate most computer use, energy conservation and the explosive population growth that officials are struggling to keep pace with.

"You would never build something like this again," county Public Works Director James M. Irvin said, referring to the partition-chopped second floor of the George Howard Building -- the centerpiece of the county complex.

Faced with leaking roofs, struggling ventilation systems and office locations that force residents to visit a half-dozen places in several buildings to accomplish one task, the county is preparing for a major modernization and rearrangement of space.

"You used to design a building expecting it to last 100 years," said Richard C. Donkervoet, the Baltimore architect whose firm designed the 1976 Howard Building -- where the County Council and county executive work. "Now the life span is considerably different because of social and technological changes."

Still, Donkervoet said, his firm did a good job. "I don't think [the design] is dated," he said. "They wanted an image building."

Even the County Courthouse, enlarged and renovated a decade ago, is bulging at the seams and needs enlargement, and the 1974 police headquarters and the attached Northern District station, added a decade later, are undergoing a $3.9 million makeover.

The Chicago-based consulting firm GHK is studying the problem, and is looking at ways to use the newly acquired 200,000-square-foot Allied Signal building in Columbia. The county bought the one-story facility off Route 108 last year for $7.5 million. A report is due to County Executive James N. Robey by mid-March.

Could exceed $60 million

These recent actions -- along with capital budget plans for $21 million for an advanced emergency communications system and tentative plans for more than $20 million in western county police and fire facilities -- could push the total bill over $60 million during the next decade.

The county might not be able to afford all the changes, Irvin told the County Council last week, which is another reason the professional consultants were hired -- to set priorities and estimate costs. For example, renovating the Howard Building might require temporarily relocating everyone in it.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat, made it clear that the council wants a role in the space study.

"Special [council] assistants need an office for confidential calls," Gray said, referring to the cluster of Dilbert-style cubicles for aides in the center of the council's offices.

Some improvements to county buildings have been completed. The Southern District police and fire station complex on Route 216 in Fulton opened in April 1994, and a large fire station next to U.S. 29 at Route 100 opened last year.

Acquisitions helping

Other recent acquisitions are helping to ease overcrowding.

The county bought the Gateway Building near Interstate 95 for $3.4 million in 1993. Renovations to the 93,000-square-foot high-rise brought the final cost to $6 million -- a bargain compared with a new building.

"We bought the Gateway Building for 40 cents on the dollar, and that took care of the immediate need," said Irvin.

Work on the Warfield police headquarters building in Ellicott City should be finished late this year, officials say. That building, where then-Police Chief Robey watched rainwater run down his office walls, is nearly empty of police officers.

"We've had a terrible problem with heating and air-conditioning systems since the buildings were added together," said Lt. Terry Schlossnagle, who is supervising the work.

`Water was squishing up'

"It was horrible," Robey said. "I looked down and moved my toes and water was squishing up from the carpet. They pulled 15 to 20 gallons out of that carpet."

Maj. Mark L. Paterni added: "Some offices had to be shut down in major storms." Spaces for storing evidence and records, and electrical systems and a mechanical security system were outdated for the county force, which has nearly doubled since 1984.

"Robey's office was terrible," Paterni said.

The county executive endorses the planned work, explaining that the recession of the early 1990s forced many projects to be put on hold.

Those who work inside the Howard Building don't share Donkervoet's fondness for it.

"It's not as functional as a [rectangular] high-rise," Irvin said. "This building was designed to be an open-office environment with no partitions." He gestured toward the small offices built from partitions that have gradually taken over, hampering the ventilation system.

"We've rewired this building ad nauseam," Irvin said.

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