Lawsuit filed over plans to expand history museum

Size of project, procedure among factors opposed

February 12, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A lawyer whose office faces the Banneker-Douglass Museum sued yesterday to halt work on a $5.5 million addition to the African-American history museum, contending that its design is a neighborhood misfit and that officials were wrong to let it proceed without complying with Annapolis city regulations.

"The design is horrible," said Thomas C. McCarthy Jr., who filed the lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Officials broke ground Feb. 3 on a brick addition that will more than double the size of the museum when it is completed next year. The state-operated museum, a former black community church, is bounded on two sides by the county courthouse in the heart of the capital's historic district, and on the third side by the vacant lot where the addition will be built.

Work has begun to stabilize an office building next door to the lot.

McCarthy contends that city officials should have treated the three-story addition as a project requiring permits and approvals because, even though it is a state project, it is on land owned by Anne Arundel County.

However, the city and state, relying on an opinion from the attorney general's office, are treating the addition as a state project exempt from local regulation, including Historic Preservation Commission approval. The state is building and paying for the addition, and holds a long-term lease for the land.

McCarthy said the design of the addition "diminishes the importance of the church itself ... . I think that is inappropriate."

In his lawsuit against the county, city and state, McCarthy is seeking a court order to stop work until the county applies for and receives building and grading permits. He said he has no opposition to expanding the museum, only to the design.

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge David S. Bruce is scheduled to hear the request for a temporary restraining order today.

State and county officials said they could not comment on the lawsuit because they had not seen it. State officials said they have been following the appropriate rules, which exempt them from historic district approval but include review by the Maryland Historical Trust.

Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which operates the museum, said the state "worked very closely" with Annapolis city officials on the expansion design, a claim that city planners dispute.

McDonough said the state held two public hearings.

"We took comments from interested people, and we tried to incorporate, as best we could, some of their suggestions in our final design," McDonough said.

City officials disagreed. "We have never been part of a formal review process. No application has ever been filed to this department," said Donna Hole, the city's historic preservation chief. "They have not gone through the [Historic Preservation Commission] and planning and zoning review process - they have done what they called a courtesy review."

She said state officials brought in complete construction drawings. The preservation commission has seen the plans but did not "approve" them, she added.

Hole said she is not impressed by the design: "I do not think it is compatible. That is my professional opinion."

Jon Arason, director of planning and zoning for the city, also expressed dissatisfaction: "We were not particularly enamored by the facade design. When we tried to recommend changes, it was difficult and the changes they made were equally unacceptable."

After several meetings, he said, "they said it was the final design" and would be too expensive to change.

In late December, some supporters expressed concern that the expansion had been delayed and said they feared that the small museum would soon be eclipsed by the 82,000-square- foot Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, set to open in Baltimore next year.

But last week, state officials including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. heralded the expansion at a ceremony in Annapolis.

The new wing, funded by the state and expected to be completed by fall next year, will add nearly 12,000 square feet to the approximately 9,000-square-foot museum, which drew about 30,000 visitors last year.

Sun staff writer Amanda Crawford contributed to this article.

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