Patching the problems of a searing market

Annapolis takes blame for cooling unit at Market House

August 20, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Beleaguered merchants in the stifling Annapolis Market House could get a rent break or other concessions from the city, which acknowledged last week that it won't be able to deliver another air-conditioning system until as late as November.

The brand-new system was overwhelmed by the scorching weather that hit when the historic city-owned market unofficially reopened three weeks ago. The indoor heat wave drove business away during peak tourist season and delayed the launch of some of its 11 vendors.

The city official who oversaw the installation of the system addressed the scope of the problem at a meeting Wednesday with tenants and an executive from their management firm, Site Realty LLC.

Emory Harrison, director of central services, conceded that the output of the current 15-ton system was too weak to keep up with the heat generated by the food stalls' ovens amid a record-breaking heat wave.

As a result, temperatures inside the compact building soared above 100 degrees, creating intolerable working conditions and an uninviting environment for visitors.

An improved cooling system of at least 60 tons will be designed to be in place within 90 days - after downtown's marquee event of the year, the October boat shows.

The city will pick up the tab for the second air-conditioning unit, but officials said it was too early to estimate the cost.

"We're working hard to get this thing fixed, and we're taking the responsibility," city spokesman Ray Weaver said after the meeting. "It's a mess, and we're mortified."

Site Realty Vice President Richard Cohen and Harrison, the central services director, did not return requests for comment.

For now, the city government's plan is to upgrade the temporary unit now sticking out of the structure and surrounded by a chain-link fence, roundly criticized as an eyesore.

In another City Hall response, the City Council's Economic Matters Committee will convene Aug. 31 to inquire into the air-conditioning system's failure on the hottest days of the year, said Alderman Richard E. Israel, who represents the historic district.

"Should there be concessions to vendors? Who was it that decided the capacity of the air-conditioning? Who is responsible?" Israel said in an interview.

Israel also raised the possibility of rent concessions to vendors and to Site Realty. Starting July 1, the city began charging about $100,000 a year in annual rent.

Gary Guzzi, a co-owner of the Fractured Prune doughnut shop, said conditions there have been a struggle from the start. Day by day, he and a handful of workers hand-dipped doughnuts in oil by a locked doorway that blocks a massive air-conditioning tube on the sidewalk.

"We're the laughingstock of Annapolis. All the tenants are livid," he said. "And the mayor's [Ellen O. Moyer] on vacation."

All but three of the food and refreshment stalls are open, along with a bank kiosk. Hardest hit by the heat has been Lee's Ice Cream, which was still closed Friday. What the Fudge, with an operation that was slowed or stopped on the 90-degree days, was open for business Friday. Eighty-five degrees is the upper limit for making fudge, said co-owner Matt Abruzzo.

"It's my dream to run a fudge shop, and I love my [water] view. But it's been too much, too long," Abruzzo said.

This comes as the latest problem at the Market House, a plain rectangular structure shuttered at the end of 2004 for a major overhaul. The city did not renew the former tenants' leases and spent $1 million overhauling the storm-battered building, installing new ventilation systems and a new roof.

But a political embarrassment unfolded last summer after Robert D. Agee, the city administrator, disclosed that a deal he had been working on for months to bring Dean & DeLuca, a New York gourmet grocer, to the space had fallen apart.

Site Realty, which manages the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill in Washington, was the runner-up in the city's selection of master leaseholders. It won the nod in a second round of bidding.

In lunch-hour sunshine Friday, some passersby said the process took way too long, but they were glad to see signs of life in the shell. Others said they missed the plain atmosphere of the old marketplace.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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