Historic panel OKs Acton's Landing

Old Medical Center site to hold upscale housing

April 10, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

After years of community haggling and arduous review, the plan to redevelop the former hospital site in downtown Annapolis into an upscale 106-home community is poised to become a reality.

"We're delighted with the approval," Russell Rosenberger, president of Virginia-based Madison Homes Inc., said of Tuesday night's vote by the Historic Preservation Commission, signing off on the developer's choice of building materials and exterior design for the Acton's Landing project.

The unanimous vote by the commission, which reviews construction plans in the city's historic district, frees the developer to pursue city building and grading permits. If all goes according to plan, the developer hopes to begin demolition this fall. Construction is expected to take about three years.

In May, the city's Board of Appeals approved the site design of the project, which includes a 79-unit condominium building, 14 townhouses and 13 single-family homes.

Tuesday night's approval marked the culmination of more than four years of work by the developer to redevelop the 4.5-acre site vacated by Anne Arundel Medical Center in December 2001.

But the plan - the largest residential construction project in the historic district in decades - was beset by concerns about density, the developer's construction record and a lawsuit by neighbors.

When the HPC finally cast its vote after reviewing project details for more than three hours, one member of the development team shouted "Bravo!" as others broke into applause.

The panel's decision came with few conditions, though members of the commission and a representative from the Historic Annapolis Foundation expressed concern about the use of unauthentic materials, such as stucco on the condominium building and a single-family home and other details.

"I do have grave concerns of this being a precedent for use in the historic district," said Bill Sherman, the foundation's director of conservation services, about the stucco on the single-family home.

In the end, the commission allowed the use of the stucco - though it required a finer grain - but specified that this was a one-time exception. The commission also allowed the use of a divided-pane window on new single-family homes and concrete instead of granite curbs.

With only three members of the public testifying - Sherman, a former HAF president and the retiring president of the neighborhood association - it was clear the project had come a long way from meetings a year or more ago, when the developers faced opposition from some in the public.

"We now look forward to Acton's Landing enhancing and strengthening the livability of downtown Annapolis," said Sandy Cohen, former president of the Murray Hill Residents Association.

But the developer's attorney, Alan J. Hyatt, hinted at the difficulties the project has faced as he asked the commission for approval. "At times we wondered if we would ever get here," he said. "But we did."

Madison Homes was selected by the hospital to redevelop the site in September 1999. But its initial plan of 139 homes was criticized by nearby residents who said it was too dense for the community.

In January 2001, the developers themselves became the concern. The Sun revealed that Madison Homes' principals had faced financial and legal problems and their former company, the Milton Co., had been sued by communities in Maryland and Northern Virginia for shoddy construction.

Among the verdicts was a record $6.7 million award in 1994 to owners at the Bentley Place condominium development in Rockville. To appease the community, Madison Homes pledged intense oversight, brought in a financial partner and said they would hire another company to build the Acton's Landing project.

But when the hospital moved out of town in December 2001, abandoning and boarding up its downtown site, the developer had not yet started the city's three-tier approval process.

The project was further delayed by a lawsuit from a group of nearby residents, which challenged the Board of Appeals approval of the project, saying it did not fit into the community. The groups settled out of court in November, agreeing to eliminate two single-family and one townhouse from the plan.

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