Fingers pointed in Bloomsbury Square delay

City agency blames developer

it is labeled `villain' by Schaefer


October 16, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

As about 50 families continued their wait to move into a new public housing complex on prime land in Annapolis, city and state officials took turns yesterday blaming each other for problems with the long-delayed waterfront project.

During a Board of Public Works meeting yesterday, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and other state officials said the city's Housing Authority was holding up the project by haggling over how to pay for changes such as the removal of sheds.

Schaefer also said the authority should have reviewed the project more carefully at the outset.

"You're a smart lady, and this is not like you," Schaefer told Trudy McFall, the authority's chairwoman.

McFall said the authority is not to blame for the delays. She pointed to a $1 million lawsuit filed by the developer, which says it has not been paid amid a contract dispute.

Authority officials have tried to accommodate the state by making concessions, McFall said. "I thought we were the hero, and you thought we are the villain," she told Schaefer.

Despite their disagreements, state and authority officials said residents should be able to move in by early next month if the legal issues are resolved. The move-in date has been pushed back several times since spring.

"This is a course in business school for what not to do," said an exasperated Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Bloomsbury Square was promoted as the best public housing project when workers broke ground last year. The 51-unit complex sits on one of the most desirable pieces of land in downtown Annapolis, and some say the townhouses could fetch up to $400,000 on the open market.

The red-brick townhouses along College Creek are virtually finished, but residents can't move in until the state and the Housing Authority are satisfied. The state is responsible for developing the project, and the authority will administer it.

Bloomsbury has been marred by delays and disagreements almost from the beginning.

Schaefer, a longtime critic of the project, has said it is a "tragedy" that public housing was constructed on the site and has repeatedly referred to sheds erected behind the units as "outhouses."

Baltimore-based A&R Development threatened to stop construction last summer over a contract dispute.

During a disagreement with the Housing Authority in July, state General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford said the state could sell the homes at market value if the authority kept residents from moving in.

The latest spat occurred late last month, days before residents were scheduled to move in.

A&R Development sued the state and the Housing Authority, claiming it had not been paid nearly $1 million because of a disagreement over who should guarantee performance bonds. The developer put the project in the name of a contractor. The Housing Authority and the state said it should be in A&R's name.

In the suit, A&R placed most of the blame on the Maryland Department of General Services. Rutherford said yesterday that the Housing Authority is responsible for the delays because it keeps asking for minor changes to the complex.

The lawsuit is close to being settled, state officials said.

"For the last nine and a half months, DGS has not been the problem," said Rutherford, referring to the Ehrlich's time has been in office.

Some state officials suggested that the Glendening administration, which negotiated the project, moved too quickly.

Assistant Attorney General John Thornton said previous officials had "in part" failed to do their jobs.

Gene Lynch, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief of staff, said in a phone interview that last-minute delays are common in construction projects. "This really isn't very surprising," he said. "There are purely private projects that have similarly tortured histories."

McFall acknowledged that the authority is asking for some changes to the project. But she was taken aback by the tone of the questioning.

She said the Housing Authority is not responsible for the lawsuit because the authority is not responsible for paying the developer. At one point, she asked Schaefer whether he considered the Housing Authority to be the "villain."

Said Schaefer: "I do."

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