The Hole truth escapes Annapolis


March 11, 2001|By NORRIS WEST

SOMEBODY should drag these two guys into a room, lock the door and not let them out until the big little matter of The Hole is resolved.

Yes. I'm talking about Annapolis Mayor Dean L. Johnson and property owner Ronald Hollander.

For three years, these fellows have shouted at -- or about -- each other from a distance. Their versions of events about The Hole and its aftermath differ so much that reconstructing the facts might prove more difficult than reconstructing 184 Main St.

For those just tuning in, a five-alarm fire destroyed the Main Street building in December 1997, leaving a fragile faM-gade in place. In Annapolis, which rightly cherishes its rich architectural history, a fight ensued about whether to preserve the building's front or demolish the charred shell and rebuild.

The upside about preservation is that Annapolis is one of the prettiest small towns around -- about the most attractive one I've seen, especially in the spring.

The downside is that you can take preservation too far.

The structure should have been demolished from the start, as Mr. Hollander requested.

Mr. Hollander, however, ran into city code language on preservation, which prohibits destruction of a salvageable building without approved plans to replace it. Never mind that 184 Main St. was shaky. The wall was crumbling and, the property owner said, an independent analysis concluded that the front couldn't stand.

But someone in the city bureaucracy foolishly determined that the structure could be saved.

Might as well have predicted 60 home runs for Albert Belle this year.

In August 1998, eight months after the blaze, a thunderstorm blasted the bricks into rubble. The $30,000 worth of shoring was wasted money. The eight months were wasted time.

Things got worse.

Two and a half years have passed and still nothing's happened at 184 Main St. -- a street that puts much of the sparkle in the jewel that is Annapolis.

A Sun editorial last week decried the inertia. The editorial questioned whether Mayor Johnson was showing enough leadership to get the job done.

The mayor was furious enough to pay me a visit, along with Planning and Zoning Director Jon L. Arason and his spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly.

Their visit came after a telephone call and before a visit to Mr. Hollander and his attorneys.

As you've probably guessed, I heard two completely different stories.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Roskelly said the administration had reached agreement on the property's redevelopment several days after the fire. They said the agreement called for demolition and reconstruction within two years. They said the city also agreed to fast-track the permitting process.

Mr. Roskelly said he'd already distributed a news release announcing the good news, but that the deal fell apart when Mr. Hollander insisted that the city waive construction permit fees.

Hogwash, said Mr. Hollander and his lawyers.

"I thought we had a deal, and at the 11th hour, they pulled the rug out from under us," recollects Samuel Brown, one of Mr. Hollander's lawyers.

Whatever happened apparently created an adversarial atmosphere that lingers, stopping anything from getting done.

Mr. Hollander has said he wouldn't move until Mr. Johnson is no longer mayor. Among other things, he's angry that the city has billed him for the cost of shoring the faM-gade three years ago.

"I would hope that a piece of property worth $1.85 million is not being held up by a $30,000 bill," the mayor responded.

The two sides haven't talked. Instead, they've engaged in more long-distance he-said, he-said.

Mr. Hollander said the mayor has never called him to get things moving. The mayor insists that he has left messages at the property owner's office, and his calls were never returned.

Does anyone have a polygraph? Or does anyone care about the sordid three-year history of this deal?

Count me among those who don't give a damn any more.

For one thing, The Hole isn't Annapolis' only concern right now, as Mr. Arason pointed out during our meeting. The city has other economic issues to deal with.

Also, past squabbles really don't amount to a hill of bricks when a hole in a ground is still awaiting bricks and mortar.

Advice to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hollander: Move on.

Find common ground and construct a building that matches Annapolis' historic beauty.

Mr. Hollander has the property (sans building) up for sale, though many doubt he can fetch the $1.85 million asking price. He has conceptual drawings of a building. That could become a good start.

First, they must meet face to face. In a room, locked, until a deal is signed and notarized.

Norris P. West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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