Office park sparks tension

Request for study highlights the rift between city, county

Annapolis

January 21, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The process of turning the former David Taylor Research Center outside Annapolis into a privately run high-tech office park has exposed another rift in the seemingly age-old rivalry between the city and county, leading to sharp verbal jabs.

The back-and-forth has alarmed the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, whose name reflects its regional view.

"We would be extremely concerned if this did adversely affect the ability of the county and city governments to work in a cooperative fashion," said Frederick C. Sussman, chairman of the chamber's government relations committee.

The tension flared because the $250 million waterfront office park is expected to lure a major city employer, TeleCommunication Systems Inc., and its 275 jobs, across the Severn River.

Mayor Dean L. Johnson has requested an analysis of the economic impact on the city of 35,000. That has provoked howls of protest from the project's strongest backers, including County Executive Janet S. Owens, who say it comes too late and is misguided.

It's not only the David Taylor issue that has strained city-county relations anew; the planned revitalization of moribund Parole Plaza on the city-county line has fueled intergovernmental tensions of its own.

"All the shopping malls are outside Annapolis, all the business parks are outside Annapolis," said Johnson, a Republican up for re-election this fall. "We've never received any of the economic benefits of that."

Owens, a Democrat, has been a vocal advocate of the David Taylor plan and helped push through a divided County Council two zoning-related bills deemed critical to the conversion last week.

"I don't think [Annapolis officials] understand economic development," she said. "When the whole grows, everybody improves."

Johnson sat on the original reuse committee that looked for ways to use the prime real estate overlooking the U.S. Naval Academy after the Navy decided to close the base in 1995. But it was not until May that Owens chose Annapolis Partners - a venture between TCS and Mesirow Stein Real Estate Inc. of Chicago - to redevelop it.

The project has grown in recent years. Although early plans envisioned 585,000 square feet of development, 730,000 square feet are being proposed. If all goes as planned, TCS could move in by mid-2002, the partnership says.

Johnson "raised some very valid concerns because the plan has changed," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, whose district includes Annapolis and who opposed the Taylor legislation.

Annapolis Partners, however, is bluntly skeptical of Johnson's concern.

"One has to question the mayor's judgment, and more importantly, his true motivation for waiting until the 11th hour to craft this thinly veiled request in an attempt to block the sale and transfer of David Taylor to this developer," said the partnership's Ron K. McDonald.

Maurice B. Tose, TCS' chairman and chief executive officer, questioned the mayor's assertion that he fears losing the high-tech firm. "I'm very surprised by his level of concern, since I've never received a Christmas card or phone call or anything," Tose said. He said his growing business needs more space than the 61,000 square feet it occupies in two buildings at opposite ends of West Street.

McDonald portrayed the project as a win-win for Annapolis. Not only would TCS' departure free up badly needed office space in the city, but the David Taylor project would feature water-taxi service to ferry mostly well-paid employees to downtown - without the added car traffic. Nor would TCS move out of the area to someplace such as Northern Virginia.

The chamber's Sussman tends to side with the developer, referring to the "spinoff effects" of a project such as David Taylor and asserting that Annapolis has nowhere to house a company as large as TCS.

Johnson, though, said a goal of the huge effort to revitalize West Street is to accommodate companies like TCS. David Taylor may present even more competition. Johnson and Samorajczyk say companies that had been interested in moving to West Street are looking instead at David Taylor.

The rocky city-county relationship has been worsened, observers say, by poor communication, although who is to blame is disputed.

Owens said she heard from Johnson about David Taylor once, last month, when he called to express concerns about what TCS' departure would do to the city. By the time they hung up, she said, his concerns seemed to have vanished. She said the next thing she knew, Johnson had written the Navy - which owns the land - to ask for an impact study. (The Navy has not responded to the Jan. 9 letter.)

Johnson said it was Owens who dropped the ball. "She can check her phone records; I called several times," he said, adding there was no reply in the days before the council's votes on the Taylor bills.

Disputes between the city and county have been common over the years. One perennial dispute involves annexation. The county has resisted the city's attempts to expand its borders by adding county land. Most recently, Owens has worried that the city might try to annex Parole Plaza, although Johnson said the city merely listened when property owner Carl Freedman broached the subject last summer.

"Virtually every county executive prior to me has gotten irritated [with the city]," Owens said. "I know I have a much longer fuse and patience than they did, and I'm even getting irritated."

Sussman says a broad view is vital for the long-term success of the region: "The city is not an island; the county is not an island. It's all in the broader context. Transportation issues, land-use issues, public safety issues - whatever. Just because you have an artificially created jurisdictional boundary line doesn't mean the twain shall never meet. They have to meet."

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