Tenants of city trade center tread water

Isabel displaced 60 firms

state's response criticized

October 21, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

With just a few hours to get in and out, and sometimes in darkness, an associate of Lee Connor enters the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore, retrieves some documents and gets them back to the boss.

Connor's employee isn't a spy or a thief - just an associate of the 60 businesses displaced from the trade center in the longest-running and largest single commercial disruption caused by Tropical Storm Isabel more than a month ago.

About 3 million gallons of water entered the basement of the state-owned office tower, enough to fill the dolphin tank at the National Aquarium more than three times. The surge from the adjacent Inner Harbor destroyed most of the electrical, mechanical and telecommunications systems housed beneath the signature structure designed by the famed architect I.M. Pei.

But some tenants, who were forced to scramble to set up operations elsewhere, want to know why they weren't warned, why more wasn't done to protect equipment in a building that has flooded before and who will cover their millions of dollars in losses.

The Maryland Port Administration, the state agency that runs the city's port and owns the 26-year-old trade center, has yet to determine how the water breached floodgates that were installed there after lesser flooding in 1979.

Given that continuing mystery, it is unnerving to tenants, and some outside experts, that state officials plan to put the equipment back in the same place where it was flooded. It would likely be too expensive and consume too much rental space to move the systems higher in the 30-story tower, the port administration said.

The agency informed businesses on its Web site yesterday that they can schedule their return to the building beginning tomorrow.

State officials expect to receive federal aid and insurance to cover most of the estimated $8 million to $10 million in damage to the building. But the tenants are uncertain how they will recoup their losses and moving expenses.

Effort and expense

"It's been terribly disruptive," said Connor, who moved his port services company headquarters near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport a day after the storm.

"We've gone to great lengths and considerable expense to get temporary offices up and running, and I'm really proud of what we've done. We're not moving back to the World Trade Center until we're sure everything will work."

Connor's staff has ferried stuff out of the trade center since Isabel's storm surge sent 16 feet of water into the basement, destroying the backup generators as well as the main systems.

The state agency plans to proceed with a plan developed this year to sell the building, which it no longer considers part of its central mission. Whether the flood susceptibility will lower its value - and the payback to state taxpayers - is uncertain.

Installing a new water line necessary for sprinklers and toilets took longer than expected, and testing of the new equipment continues. But tenants should be able to check their space for major problems and begin returning on a staggered basis this week, said James J. White, executive director of the port administration.

"Our efforts have been focused on what we need to do to get tenants back in the building, and we think we came out with an aggressive schedule to get them back in about 30 days," White said. "We'll do what we can to keep this from happening again, but the building is where it is, on the harbor."

Could have been worse

White takes some comfort in the fact that the "act of God" could have been worse. Had harbor waters climbed another half-foot, the surge would have entered the lobby and elevator shafts and more seriously damaged the building.

The port administration will not allow tenants to break their leases because of the disruption. White said the building will be better because of the repairs, with new electrical and telecommunications infrastructure and about 80 percent of the mechanical equipment replaced. Elevator and security improvements were under way before the flood.

While laying claim to being the tallest pentagonal building in the world, the 1970s structure lacks the flood protection enjoyed by harborside offices of more recent vintage. One of the building's lead designers, Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York, did not respond to requests for an interview last week.

By contrast, the year-old Bond Street Wharf in Fells Point, which houses the headquarters of architecture firm RTKL Associates Inc., experienced no flooding from Isabel.

That building, a quarter-mile east from the trade center, was elevated for protection. It does not have a basement, and critical equipment was installed on its roof, said Harold L. Adams, chairman of RTKL.

He also chairs the World Trade Center Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes port-related commerce from the trade center. The institute was also forced to move out of the building it's named for after the flooding to temporary space at RTKL.

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