Plan set to save Comsat building

Out of the spotlight, developer and community agree on plan

Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007


Quiet discussions between the Clarksburg community and the owner of the Comsat property led to an announcement Monday night that the Comsat building would be saved.

‘‘Through the dialogue we ended up with a plan we’re excited about,” Mike Smith, vice president of LCOR, the real estate development firm that owns the property, told the Clarksburg Civic Association’s planning committee.

Two University of Maryland professors nominated the building built in 1969 for inclusion in the state’s historic registry in 2004 and the county Historic Preservation Commission agreed, but the county Planning Board did not.

Developer LCOR of Berwyn, Pa., fought all attempts to declare the building historic, fearing that would prevent it from redeveloping the property.

However, once it had won the historic preservation issue, LCOR was willing to talk about the building’s future, lawyer Stephen P. Elmendorf of Linowes and Blocher said.

‘‘What was fought was the all or nothing position before,” he said. ‘‘We found a way to save the important parts of the building.”

Following a June charette to brainstorm ideas for developing the 230-acre Comsat campus without razing the building, an event sponsored by Montgomery Preservation Inc., County Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown convinced LCOR to sit down with members of the Clarksburg community. LCOR was not involved in the charette.

‘‘My concern was there were too many conversations taking place, but the primary stakeholders — the property owner and the community — weren’t having any conversations with each other,” Knapp said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Through a series of four or five meetings that began in early August, the two groups reached agreement on what was important to save and the parameters of how to do it, Knapp said.

‘‘We’ve been on a journey — long distance — as to the future of the Comsat building,” Smith said. ‘‘We’ve had a change of mind.”

Architectural historians consider the Comsat building, along Interstate 270 in Clarksburg, the county’s first high-technology building, with its glass and aluminum exterior organized around a central spine. Comsat is also important because of the early satellite work done there, many say.

The new plan will preserve the four main wings of the building designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, the building’s two spines, the interior courtyard and portico.

‘‘Cesar Pelli has offered to work with us and we’re happy to discuss it,” Smith said.

Pelli and his staff participated in the charette.

Those at the charette who have seen the new plan find it is remarkably similar to ideas they developed. Both envision a mixed-use residential and commercial community around the Corridor Cities Transitway station slated for the property.

‘‘Out greatest ambition is this will be a catalyst for the [Corridor Cities Transitway],” Smith said.

Architect Gary Maule of RTKM in Washington, D.C., spoke to the group about his process for developing the new plan, which is still ‘‘a work in progress.”

‘‘The goal is to create something authentic and sustainable,” he said.

The bucolic rolling topography, vistas and views of the Comsat building were important considerations, he said.

The plan will resemble a village, with about 150, 000 square feet of retail, two four-story office buildings, and 1,200 to 1,500 homes in a mix of apartments and townhouses. The number and the mix of units are still being refined, Smith said.

‘‘On their Web site, LCOR discussed how they work with the community and that’s exactly what they’ve done,” Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation Inc., said in a phone interview Tuesday. ‘‘I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Last year, Goldstein sued the county to try to force a reconsideration of Comsat’s historic designation and led a letter-writing campaign to save the building.

‘‘I like to think I played a small, useful part in this whole thing,” he said.

Smith will present the Comsat plan to the Clarksburg Civic Association general meeting Jan. 22, and then spend the next few months refining it before filing a rezoning application with the county. He promised to present the updated plan to the community before any rezoning hearings. This time they hope to go into the hearings with the community’s support, Elmendorf said.