Annapolis anxious to fill gap in cityscape

3 years after fire left hole along Main St., lot goes up for sale

March 04, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

It's been called an eyesore, an outrage, a disgrace.

But now the 3-year-old "hole" along Annapolis' Main Street and directly across from the State House is for sale.

It's the first move to rebuild the property after the 99-year-old structure that once stood there burned down in a five-alarm fire in December 1997.

"People, they just turn around and stare," said Karin Rawls, a sales clerk at the Fashnique across the street from the empty lot. "It looks very bad. [Tourists] ask what happened, and you tell the story over and over again."

The brouhaha that ensued after the flames were subdued at 184-186 Main St. is the stuff of modern legend in the state capital.

The blaze -- which erupted in the first-floor Indian restaurant -- spared the brick facade of the building that once housed the city's first Jewish-owned department store.

Though the property owner, Ronald B. Hollander, lobbied aggressively for permission to demolish what was left, preservationists stepped in, and the city spent about $30,000 to secure the remains.

Eight months later, a summer storm further eroded the stability of the facade and some of the bricks began to fall.

The city then ordered its demolition.

Outraged by the delay in demolition, Hollander constructed a fence around some of the rubble -- painted a bright orange on the State House side -- and reportedly vowed that would be his last action on the property until Mayor Dean L. Johnson left office. Hollander, one of the largest property owners in Annapolis, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

His real estate agent, Jack Steffey of Champion Realty Inc.'s Main Street office, said he listed the property last month and posted two large "For Sale" signs two weeks ago. The asking price for the tenth-of-an-acre property is $1.85 million.

Steffey said he has fielded about 20 inquires and made eight presentations about the property he calls a "lifetime opportunity."

"The market in downtown Annapolis is so strong, we thought it was the opportune time to market the property," Steffey said. He said Hollander made the decision after he rapidly leased space at another property on Main Street.

But some local shop owners and others say the asking price is unrealistic and question whether Hollander really wants the property to sell.

Phil Dunn, a developer and president of Herrmann-Dunn Real Estate, said he had talked to Hollander about the property before but is not interested in it at the asking price.

"The business conversation about that site is that [the price] seems excessive," he said. "I would never realistically consider buying a piece of ground for $400 a square foot."

"There is a million dollars' worth of aggravation above the cost of the land to do that job," he said.

The property will be subject to historic-district restrictions, and any developer's plan will have to clear the hurdles of the city's Historic Preservation Commission's design review.

"The new developer would not be able to go in there and build a glass box," said Donna Hole, chief of historic preservation with the planning and zoning department. "It would need to be compatible with Main Street and State Circle."

Steffey said Hollander hired an architect to design the concept for a building in that space, arriving at a 31,000-square-foot structure with more than four stories.

Though her department has not performed a complete analysis of the property, Hole said she anticipates height restrictions would limit the structure to three stories.

Above and beyond any complications that could arise in permitting, the future builder would have to deal with another obstacle: narrow, busy streets that are the only access for construction.

"Every load of concrete is going to block traffic completely," Mayor Johnson said. "It is going to be more expensive than usual and a greater challenge to build something there -- but we stand ready and able to proceed as quickly as we can."

Johnson called the empty, rubble-covered lot in Annapolis' historic district "a burr under the saddle" of his administration. The fire that destroyed most of the building occurred eight days after he took office, and he has dealt with public pressure about the vacant lot ever since.

Up for re-election in November, Johnson said he is pleased to see any movement toward construction on the site.

But some say they will never understand the delay.

"Yesterday was too late," Rawls, the sales clerk, said.

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