George Howard Building renovations nearly complete

County Council to meet there Sept. 7

August 24, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Workers are hurrying to ready the George Howard Building for its first County Council meeting in two years, but there's a lot to do before Howard government agencies can move back to the 32-year-old headquarters in Ellicott City.

The County Council chamber was still without seats last week as contractors worked on wiring and other final touches for a legislative session scheduled for October — the first since October 2008.

County Public Works Director James Irvin, who has worked in the building since it opened in 1978 and has been overseeing its $23.5 million renovation, said the building should be ready for occupancy by mid-September.

"I think that all things considered, it's turned out pretty well," he said during a brief tour Monday.

The changes include a glass-walled front lobby that replaced a dark brick wall adorned with portraits of past county executives, as well as brighter, whiter rooms, ceilings and furniture. Agencies have been reorganized, placing those that deal directly with the public, such as cashiers and development officials, on the first floor along with public meeting rooms and an expanded County Council office.

"It's a whole different feeling," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who gave up the decade-old dream of a new office campus and courthouse for the less expensive renovation. "We made it seem brighter, airy. It's such a breath of fresh air."

In addition to the George Howard Building, the county is renovating the smaller Carroll and Ligon buildings and has connected the two with a breezeway. The entire project cost about $40 million, Irvin said. The sale of surplus county property will leave an estimated $7 million debt to resolve in the 2012 budget.

Nearly everything in the four-level George Howard Building was ripped out and replaced, including some load-bearing brick walls, the windows, plumbing and electrical systems. The lobby was enlarged, and big, bright windows replaced dark basement brick walls in county finance offices. But the most striking change will be apparent to visitors as soon as they enter.

Instead of the brick wall, they will see a brightly lit series of glass doors and partitions and a public service counter for planning and zoning. The larger council offices for members, their staff and the county auditor took space once devoted to two public meeting rooms. Those have been moved closer to the building's main entrance.

Each new feature incorporates an energy-saving idea, from the underground rain cistern beneath the entry plaza to the solar panels on the roof and the solar-powered street lights. The parking lot was reconfigured to add about 20 spaces, with parking for hybrid or electric vehicles up front.

Thicker, stainless-steel outer surfaces; multi-pane, insulated windows that work with motion sensors to control indoor lighting; waterless urinals in updated bathrooms; and new light fixtures are expected to save about 20 percent on energy. An enlarged lunch area in the basement will have a separate glassed-in room where employees can eat — a sharp contrast to the dingy snack bar of the past. There is also a well-equipped employee exercise room, another new feature.

Irvin said the new spaces are designed to get rid of the old rows of file cabinets and makeshift separations between desks in the old offices, which were designed before computers came into widespread use.

"Same location, different building," he said. "I think it addresses all the issues of antiquity that have been around."

Still, the renovations have not added huge amounts of space. Two county agencies, human resources and information technology, will remain in rented Columbia offices in the Ascend 1 building on Stanford Boulevard, where the county offices have been temporarily situated since November 2008. Once the move back to Ellicott City is complete, the county circuit courts are to replace them for about a year during courthouse renovations. Irvin said the county will retain options to continue renting space there for two more years.

Ulman said the main advantage of the Columbia offices was the "newer, professional environment. The old building was so rundown it wasn't a professional environment," he said.

The executive said that he, like other county workers, will miss having a variety of restaurants within walking distance, but in Ellicott City, county workers will be close to "the great restaurants and shops on Main Street and on Route 40."

Many county workers say they have gotten used to the more modern, open layout of the Ascend 1 building, with its large cafeteria and surrounding amenities.

But Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, who represents Ellicott City, said she's "thrilled to be going back to the George Howard Building." Among the members, she's got the longest commute to the Columbia offices for Zoning Board meetings, she said. "Also, I worry that our citizens don't know where we are."

But Jennifer Terrasa, who represents the southeastern part of the county and lives closer to the temporary headquarters, said she has mixed feelings.

"I really enjoy being this close to my district and where my kids are," said the mother of three. A major relief, though, she said, will be not having to lug heavy council books back and forth to school board headquarters where formal council meetings have been held.

Though the renovation has been under way for nearly two years, county residents often seem unaware of the project and still turn up at the George Howard Building, ignoring the large red "Closed" sign facing the parking lot and expecting to pay a bill or get a question answered, Irvin said.

"There's one nearly every day," he said. "We've had people walk in the building."

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