Workers leaving troubled building

Store to house state, Balto. County offices

January 05, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

After years of health complaints from workers in the Investment Building, Baltimore County began moving offices out of the high-rise last night and into a former Caldor department store near the city line.

The Drumcastle Center, as the renovated building has been named, will eventually house about 900 county and state employees in 161,200 square feet on three floors.

Parts of the Health Department and the Office of Community Conservation will be moved in this weekend, with other departments to follow this month. State employees will move in the weekend of Jan. 25.

The move doesn't bring an end to the Investment Building saga, however. More than 30 current and former employees have filed an $18.3 million lawsuit against the owners and managers, claiming they didn't do enough to make the building safe.

The owners and mangers have denied doing anything wrong and have vowed to fight the lawsuit.

Employees complained about headaches, respiratory problems and rashes that they linked to poor air quality and unchecked breeding of mold or fungi in the office tower in downtown Towson.

Under mounting pressure, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger agreed in December 2000 to move the workers to the former Caldor building within six months.

"None of this would have happened if people had not pulled together and fought against management on the issue of indoor air quality," said Jeff Bigelow, a representative of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 92. "Management in the beginning, particularly the owners of the building, had refused to recognize there was a health and safety problem."

Renovations are not complete at the Drumcastle Center on York Road in Anneslie. The first floor still requires work, but the second and third floors are partitioned into a maze of gray and black cubicles. The exterior also has been altered -- rows of office windows have been installed in what had been a blank front wall.

Jim W. Dobson, an Anneslie Community Association board member, said neighborhood residents seem pleased with the building's transformation. There's some concern about how much traffic 900 new employees will generate, but the move has removed an eyesore from the area, he said.

"We view it as a very positive move," he said. "They've done a nice job on the building, and prior to it being a county and state office, quite honestly, it was just empty and falling into disrepair."

The move is not without its detractors. County employees, unwilling to give their names for fear of job reprisals, said they're unhappy about moving to a location that's farther from the Baltimore Beltway and located in a commercial strip rather than a downtown.

There's also some concern about parking. Though the new building will have more spaces than the Investment Building, there are still fewer spaces than employees.

Drumcastle Center will have 650 spaces for workers, compared to 507 at the Investment Building. Elise Armacost, a Ruppersberger spokeswoman, said there's no need to have parking for every employee. Some people are ill or on vacation on any given day, and some workers carpool or use public transportation, she added.

The inconveniences aren't as important as healthy working conditions, said Annemarie R. Vallonga, a social worker and chairperson of the union's Health and Safety Committee.

"Yes, I'm grumbling about the cubicles and parking, and it's far away from [Interstate] 695, but ... I would much rather live with those things than possibly be diagnosed with something 10 years from now," she said.

"None of us want to work in rat holes and not see our co-workers, but I'd much rather be in a new building where we know there's no mold or asbestos that's going to make us sick."

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