Could have been uglier

August 02, 2011

At this point, it's probably something of an iconic structure, but it's hardly the epitome of modern architecture.

Even the name by which it's known is a bit of an acknowledgment of its being something that makes utilitarian form stand out in a strange sort of way.

In its most recent use, it was the office building for the Harford County Council, but it's more well known by the name that describes it perfectly: the Black Box.

Built in 1985, it looks it. Its reflective panels that double as windows give it the monolithic appearance of something designed to be futuristic. Now that the future is here, relative to 1985 anyway, it looks decidedly dated.

Perhaps, that's why the county government was able to take it off the private office space market in 1996 for $1.4 million, a sum that seems like a relative bargain, even considering the dated look of the structure, and considering a real estate market that could generously be described as soft.

The building lately has been estimated to have a value in excess of $5 million. Of course, that's before some structural flaws were found a few months back and the county council, the Harford County Cultural Arts Board and a few other government odds and ends were relocated from the 29,025-square-foot building.

Initially, it was suspected it might cost in the seven figures (that is to say possibly multi-millions) to make the building fit for use again.

Now comes news from a building survey costing $11,500 that another $64,000 or so will make the building fit to be occupied. This certainly isn't chump change. It's more than a healthy annual salary before taxes. But in the realm of building repairs, it's a relative bargain.

Heck, it may well have cost the county government somewhere approaching that amount to evacuate the black box. If the repairs can be done for that relatively small sum, there's a real question as to why the disconnect between what prompted the evacuation and the reality of the situation.

Possibly, it was a little bit of wishful thinking. A global office plan featuring a new county office building has been on the drawing boards since David Craig became county executive. And, though the county council has been on the record as being suspicious about plans for a new county government center, there have been times in the past when county council members have been picking out new furniture even while stating opposition to buying it.

It seems cooler heads have prevailed and we'll end up with a renovated county council building that still goes by the name Black Box for the relative bargain price of $64,000 or so. It may not be the most beautiful building in Bel Air, but the cost of replacing it with a major county office building construction project would be downright ugly.

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