County studies space needs

Alternative locations considered as officials ponder replacement of aging Howard Building

October 21, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

An Ulman administration plan to buy one of four floors in a new Oakland Mills office condominium building is apparently part of the still-evolving plan to replace Howard County's obsolete office complex in Ellicott City.

The newest version of the long-debated office campus plan, according to County Executive Ken Ulman, would see a lower, smaller, and less-expensive office building and garage erected next to the George Howard Building, which would then be demolished.

Because the new office building would contain roughly 100,000 square feet less space than in the plan proposed last year by former County Executive James N. Robey, the county will need more office space in other locations, such as Oakland Mills in Columbia.

Robey's plan would have renovated and retained the George Howard Building.

Ulman announced last week that the county will buy one 15,000-square-foot floor of the new Metroventures building in Oakland Mills for $4 million, partly to help revitalization of the village center there, and partly to prepare for the campus project.

After Republican County Councilman Greg Fox raised a question about using part of the $16.6 million approved for the office campus project to pay for the Oakland Mills space, Ulman decided to submit the $4 million purchase to the Planning Board and the County Council for a vote as a change in the capital budget approved in the spring.

"On the surface, it seems like a good idea as far as supporting the revitalization of Oakland Mills," Fox said, adding that his objections were about the process.

The county has been trying for the past eight years to find a way to renovate or replace the main government complex on Court House Drive, but the project's expense has stymied the effort.

The estimated cost of Robey's plan escalated to more than $225 million by this year -- too much for the county to afford, even as a lease-purchase deal.

In Ulman's proposal, a second phase of development would include a new Circuit Court building and new, enlarged quarters for the 911 center, now in the basement of the George Howard Building. Two smaller buildings that also date from the early 1970s would be torn down later.

The first phase, involving the new 180,000-square-foot office building and one parking garage, could be built for about $104 million, said Public Works Director James Irvin.

Ulman said it seems unwise to move the County Council and executive offices out of their current quarters and then move them back when work is completed.

"We believe it's actually more expensive -- because of the relocation -- to renovate." The County Council "setting up shop in a high school auditorium would be very expensive," he said. "I'm trying to make the best of a bad situation."

Irvin has been warning for years that the George Howard Building is obsolete and without major renovations could become uninhabitable if the air-handling system failed.

"We haven't made final decisions," Ulman said. He briefed all the council members last week, and county officials plan to meet tomorrow night with residents who live near the government complex.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City, said the new plan is "more responsive to neighbors' concerns about the size and proximity of the building."

She and others agree the current building can't last indefinitely.

"We have to make improvements to the building before it disintegrates around county employees, or build a new building.

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