Details on project promised

Howard official tells council Oakland Mills, county offices plans are a fit

December 19, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

A top Ulman administration official said he would give County Council members a detailed briefing next month on how a request to buy office space in a proposed Oakland Mills office condominium fits into plans for a new county office complex in Ellicott City.

James M. Irvin, Howard's public works director, told the council the two are intertwined, even as Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, pressed him to say that the Meridian Square office project is primarily an Oakland Mills revitalization rescue mission.

About 35 village residents attended the hearing Monday night to support the capital budget amendment that is considered vital to getting the office condominium built.

Olusola Seriki, a principal in Metroventures Inc., the office building's developer, testified that the delay in government approval of the purchase of 15,000 square feet of office space is hurting his ability to sign other buyers, who are worried the county might back out. Seriki, a former village resident and a former Rouse Co. official, said he needs to sell about half of the 60,000-square-foot building to get construction financing.

"We will reside in Meridian Square," he said about his firm's 12 employees, who will move to Columbia from Baltimore and occupy 5,200 square feet of office space.

The project has great potential for success, he said.

Residents argued that it would help the village center regain the economic stability it once enjoyed.

Mary Kate Murray, co-chairwoman of the village revitalization executive committee, told the council that the Meridian Square building could help other older village centers by providing an example of redevelopment. "Whatever is good for Oakland Mills is good for other villages," she said.

Village Board Chairman Bill Woodcock made it clear to council members that no one was angry with them for asking questions.

"This is not an angry community," he said. "We are an optimistic and proud community."

The office building and the Ellicott City campus project represent difficult and costly attempts to move beyond the 1970s, when the obsolete George Howard Building was constructed for county government and the Oakland Mills Village Center was built.

County leaders say the government offices and the village-center concept need redevelopment.

Fox grilled Irvin on the request to modify the capital budget to allow $4 million from the campus project to be diverted to the four-story, environmentally friendly Metroventures office building - even after Irvin asked that the measure be tabled until more details are provided next month.

"I like the suggestion of tabling," Fox said. "I hope the county realizes we don't have all the facts."

Irvin said County Executive Ken Ulman decided to remove the fifth floor from the design of a county office building to make it less intrusive for neighbors.

The smaller size means the county would need office space elsewhere and makes the plan to buy 15,000 square feet of Class A office space in Oakland Mills a good idea, Irvin said, especially because the county purchase would guarantee construction financing for a building considered key to the village center's progress.

But Fox pressed Irvin, noting that administration officials argued last spring that the office campus would allow county offices to be in one place - Ellicott City. The county could sell the Gateway Building and the old Bendix warehouse now called the Dorsey Building, Irvin had said.

"You explained why everything had to be consolidated," Fox said. "We're trying to figure out how we need another 15,000 square feet."

Irvin said more details would be forthcoming next month if the council formally tables the bill at its Jan. 7 meeting.

"It was never intended to put every last person at this location," he said about the Court House Drive redevelopment plan. "The county executive felt here was an opportunity to help revitalize" Oakland Mills.

"Why not withdraw this until you have something concrete?" Fox asked. "Why not make this part of the next budget?"

Irvin said speed is important because Meridian Square cannot go forward without the county's commitment. Having a Class A "green" office building in place of a vacant concrete pad where a gas station used to sit is "the heart and soul of this," Irvin said.

Council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked how the county could be sure the building would be a success. "If we have $4 million to invest in Oakland Mills, is this the best investment?" she said.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, asked what agency might be there.

Fox said he is "worried" that the owner has not sold any other space. If the county buys this space, he said, will other older areas want the same treatment?

"We just don't have the answers we need to make decisions," Fox said.

But Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat who represents Oakland Mills, said in a letter read by Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, that village centers "are being stressed by factors beyond local control," and that the Meridian Square project is "the first critical step" in reversing that trend because it will spur more investment.

Ball was away on vacation and did not attend the hearing.

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