County campus makeover

Robey calls for privately financed rehab of government complex


With five months left in office, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is proposing a $185 million, privately financed plan to redevelop the county's government complex in Ellicott City that would include a circuit courthouse, office buildings and two multilevel parking garages.

The plan, prepared by Columbia-based Corporate Office Properties Trust, differs from concepts proposed by the Robey administration in 2000 and 2004. Those plans proposed buildings on nearby sites -- a 25-acre wooded plot on Rogers Avenue near U.S. 40 and the parking lot of the existing circuit courthouse.

The earlier plans failed mainly because of the heavy financial demands on the capital budget for new county schools.

County Public Works Director James M. Irvin said the existing Ligon and Carroll buildings at the government complex would be demolished and replaced with a 278,000-square-foot structure -- essentially two four- or five-story buildings joined by a common atrium and served by a common heating and cooling system. A 168,000-square-foot circuit court building would be built near the police headquarters, which would remain. Two multilevel parking garages would rise -- one behind the police headquarters and the other at the far eastern corner of the site.

Robey said he is pursuing the project despite the fact that he does not have enough time left in office to get a County Council vote to go ahead with it. The ultimate decision will be left to the new executive and council elected in November.

"I'm convinced it needs to be done. The longer it's delayed, the more expensive it becomes," said Robey, who explained why he is pursuing the project even though he is leaving office. As for the expense, he said the county can afford it.

"I think we can. The question is can we afford not to do it," he said. "We've always put our money first and foremost into education, and we've neglected facilities for basic government."

Finalizing the design will take several more months, leaving too little time to negotiate a contract and present the plan to the County Council before the new government takes office in December. The final decision would be left to the new administration, said Jim Vannoy, a top aide to Robey, who is running for a state Senate seat. The administration plans public meetings to discuss the proposal in September, Vannoy said.

Rand Griffin, president and CEO of Corporate Office Properties Trust, said it was clear that redevelopment of the current site is a better idea.

"It's more cost-effective and functional to try to consolidate it into the existing location, which has the added advantage of freeing the other locations for sale," Griffin said.

Because the project would be privately financed, the county would not incur more bonded debt or impinge on capital budget monies for school construction, officials said, though the annual lease payments would be in the millions of dollars.

"There's an obvious need," said Victoria Goodman, the county's public information director. "The bottom line is somebody's going to have to deal with it at some point."

County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the only Republican running for county executive, and Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who also is an executive candidate, agree on the need, though they said they would have to carefully scrutinize the cost and the plan's details, if elected.

"I certainly support the project," Merdon said.

"I do feel there's a need -- a dramatic need from the courthouse standpoint," Ulman said.

Two other executive candidates, Democrat Harry M. Dunbar, and independent C. Stephen Wallis, were less familiar with the issue and took a wait-and-see approach. If elected, Dunbar said, "the community will dictate to me what they want."

The newest concept would centralize all the government functions, while using the latest techniques to build energy-efficient, environmentally friendly "green" buildings, according to Irvin.

"We think it makes sense to move forward," Irvin said. "Our spaces don't work anymore,"

County officials have complained for years that the George Howard Building, a mid-1970s structure built before personal computers that houses the executive and County Council, is obsolete and worn out. Growing maintenance and energy costs, water leaks, mold problems in the courthouse and the distances between offices make government less efficient, they say.

"I don't think anyone questions the fact that our facilities are outdated. The question has always really been about balancing financial needs, particularly with the schools," said two-term Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is running for a seat in the House of Delegates.

The total cost would be reduced by up to $50 million from the sale of the county's Gateway and Dorsey buildings in Columbia, a 25-acre wooded site on Rogers Avenue near the current complex, and perhaps even the circuit courthouse itself.

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