Legislature annex irks residents

Senate facility under construction deemed too big

$20.7 million project

Planners consulted preservationists on design, senator says

July 28, 1999|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

A state Senate building annex being built in Annapolis has become the focal point of frustration for preservationists, downtown residents and their alderman, who argue that it is ill-suited to the historic state capital.

One year after state officials swiftly built what Annapolitans decried as an "ugly" District Courthouse on Rowe Boulevard, residents are upset over the 108,000-square-foot, four-story annex to the James Senate Office Building -- a second project with limited local input.

"It's too massive," Annapolis Alderman Louise Hammond said of the annex, which is about 1 1/2 times the size of the 68,000-square-foot James building.

"It overwhelms its surroundings, and when we questioned the project, they said concrete would be poured in two weeks," she added. "It certainly makes us feel like the state's going to dump on us over and over again and not take us seriously."

Annapolitans said they were not surprised when the state announced plans in late May to build the $20.7 million annex. There had been discussion of a James building expansion on Bladen Street for almost 20 years.

But calling the design a "done deal" two weeks before construction began last month has miffed residents of a city that for decades has relied on preservation guidelines to maintain the historical ambience that draws tourists, potential residents and businesses.

The annex symbolizes many Annapolitans' continuing frustration with officials who they feel are not committed to maintaining the city's Colonial charm. State and fed- eral agencies are exempt from the preservation review process that property owners within Annapolis' historic district must go through when making additions or renovations.

Renewed frustrations

The annex has renewed frustrations over this exemption and has raised questions about its impact on downtown Annapolis and whether the state should develop a master plan for its buildings in the capital.

"Is this building going to destroy the city? No," said Tom Davies, a downtown resident and architect who reviewed the annex design at Hammond's request. "But if the state built a few more of those, could they destroy the town? Yes. And if they're not going to put their designs up for review, that makes us nervous."

State Sen. Robert R. Neall, who heads the annex project, said state officials have discussed the building with Mayor Dean L. Johnson since they began serious planning last summer. State Del. Michael E. Busch, who represents Annapolis and looked into the issue when residents began calling him with complaints, agreed.

Johnson said that although he's heard talk of expansion for 10 years, state officials only told him in March that they wanted to start construction this year.

Johnson said he did not see a need to inform the city council or residents because "a public notice had been made at that point. People would have known about it."

Johnson said he tried to speed up the permit process for the annex to negate the impression that "Annapolis does not have a good track record for developing solutions promptly." Hammond criticized Johnson's stand.

`Mayor's responsibility

"It's the mayor's responsibility to get in touch with us," said Hammond, who was especially upset at not having been notified of the annex, which is in the ward she represents. "We are not a county executive form of government. Our administration is the mayor and the city council, and the mayor does not get to make decisions unilaterally. I am getting sick and tired of that."

Neall said state planners also invited suggestions from the Historic Annapolis Foundation and the Historic Preservation Commission when they unveiled the annex design.

The design includes a three-level underground garage with 140 parking spaces and committee hearing rooms that will seat dozens more people than the ones in the James building, which accommodate 50 at most.

Design changed

He said planners changed parts of the design after receiving feedback. They removed a 30-foot cupola that preservationists said would be visual clutter, converted a glass walkway between the two buildings to brick to blend with the buildings' facades, enlarged windows and made a side entrance facing Bladen Street more prominent.

"The record will show that we have made an honest effort to reach out to the community," Neall said. "We've met with them and went back and directed architects to make substantial changes. The only thing we said we can't change is the size. This is the last lot we can build on. It's got to meet the needs of the Senate."

Neall said the senators and their staff -- about 225 in all during the session -- outgrew the four-story James building, built in 1937.

Ann Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation, said she was "disappointed" that the size of the annex was non-negotiable, but was at least happy that her organization had been allowed to make suggestions.

"If we had been involved from the beginning, the building probably would be better," she said. "Which is frustrating to some, but we don't really have the legal authority to ask for changes."

Call for master plan

Busch said the state needs a master plan for its buildings in the city. Such a plan could become even more essential in the near future, as the state considers expanding the House of Delegates building on College Avenue.

"Part of the frustration is that legislators that are not from the city of Annapolis don't appreciate all the hard work that Historic Annapolis does in the community," Busch said. "They think that historic preservation happened by accident. We could be a little more prepared with an overall master plan."

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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