County faces big bill for glass repairs

$200,000 outlay needed over 5 years at Towson offices

`Beauty has its cost'

Mirrored exterior cracks and shifts often, officials say

July 04, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

If they had to do it over, they'd probably pick brick.

But that's no longer an option for Baltimore County officials staring at the latest repair bill for the gleaming glass Public Safety Building on East Joppa Road in Towson.

The distinctive mirrored panes that cover the building's exterior crack and shift with such frequency that the county expects to spend about $200,000 over the next five years to fix them.

Yesterday, the County Council approved a repair contract with Caplan Brothers Glass Co. of Baltimore. The company will collect $895 for each panel it replaces, probably 40 within the next year, the county estimates.

"My personal opinion is it's a poorly designed building, and the county bought it," said Charles R. Olsen, who retired last week as public works chief.

The county purchased the building for $12.5 million in 1989, when Blue Cross-Blue Shield vacated its 7.3-acre Towson campus and moved to Owings Mills.

The transaction was expected to benefit the health insurer and the police and fire departments, which needed to leave cramped and aging quarters for modern office space.

But the bills began to pile up almost immediately.

Before staffers moved in, the county was facing $12 million in expenses for asbestos removal, renovations and repairs. Steel support beams in the basement were rusted through from leaking water. Two architectural firms hired by the county to design renovations went out of business, delaying occupancy and increasing the project's cost.

By 1993, four years after the purchase, three of 11 floors were in use.

Elected officials have been quietly critical of the purchase, which was negotiated during the administration of County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen.

When Olsen criticized the design at a council work session during his final week on the job, Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, was thrilled.

"For the first time in six years, finally someone admits to me that that building was an albatross," he said.

The building is fully occupied, but its 2,200 exterior glass windows crack with alarming frequency.

Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said settling and storms contribute to the problem.

In the past two months, 15 windows have required replacement, at a cost of $24,549. That's twice as much as it could have cost because a previous contract with Caplan Brothers expired, and the county used a more expensive supplier.

"That's a lot of money going out the window, literally," Skinner said. "I had no idea it was that much glass in a year."

Asked whether falling glass has hit a passer-by, Cpl. Vickie Warehime, a Police Department spokeswoman, said she didn't think so. "I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but not that I'm aware of," she said.

The building is notable for its striking faM-gade, but officials question whether it's worth the headaches.

"When you say `the mirrored building,' everybody knows what you are talking about," Skinner said. "Some times of the day, the reflection of the sky off the building is gorgeous. But beauty has its cost."

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