Comsat letters seek another shot

Writers’ goal is to persuade the County Council to hold a public hearing on building’s historic designation

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Supporters of the Comsat building in Clarksburg hope a letter-writing campaign will persuade the County Council to hold a public hearing on the building’s future.

The council is the last government body that can prevent the building’s owner from demolishing what many consider a historic building to make way for a mixed-use development.

Architectural historians say the Comsat building, off Interstate 270 in Clarksburg, was the county’s first high technology building, with its glass and aluminum exterior organized around a central spine.

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.

In response to a lawsuit filed last year by Montgomery Preservation Inc., the Planning Board voted in February to forward its recommendation that the building not receive historic designation to the County Council, which makes the final decision on land use matters, including historic designation.

According to Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation, the council is required to schedule a public hearing on the matter within 105 days of receiving documentation from the Planning Board.

In an e-mail sent to Comsat supporters, Goldstein wrote: ‘‘The County Council has been in violation of county code chapter 33A-8 since June 24, 2006, for failing to schedule a public hearing on the Comsat amendment to the [Master Plan for Historic Preservation]. ... To end this continuing violation the County Council must either schedule a public hearing or publicly vote not to hold a hearing on the Comsat amendment. There are no other lawful alternatives.”

But council lawyer Michael Faden disagrees.

‘‘I don’t think this non-amendment is properly before the council,” Faden said.

Since the Planning Board did not recommend historic designation for the building, there is no historic designation amendment for the council to consider, he said.

The historic designation process stopped when the Planning Board voted not to designate the property, he said. In a memo he sent to County Council President George M. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park in June, he likened what the Planning Board sent to the council to ‘‘an empty envelope with ‘Comsat’ on the label and nothing inside.”

‘‘The council can, of course hold a hearing on anything it wants to, including the possible designation of Comsat,” he wrote.

Goldstein calls Faden’s reasoning ‘‘a remarkable interpretation and he provides no case law to support it.”

Late last week, he sent Faden a lengthy letter citing many other examples of County Council hearings for properties that were not recommended for historic designation by the Planning Board, including several cases in which the council reversed the Planning Board’s recommendation.

Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR bought Comsat and its 230-acre campus nine years ago and plans to demolish the building and build a mixed-use residential, office and retail development on the property. The county has reserved a piece of the property for a transit station for the Corridor Cities Transitway.

LCOR has fought attempts to declare the building historic, fearing that would prevent it from redeveloping the property.

Last month, Montgomery Preservation sponsored a charette with the building’s designer, world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, to come up with ideas for preserving the original sections of the building while fulfilling the Clarksburg Master Plan goal of having a mix of retail, businesses and homes on the campus. Pelli thinks the building can be adapted for new uses that complement LCOR’s plan for the property.

‘‘As an architect I can say it’s a very important building, a beautiful building, a building that has served as the model for many other buildings by architects,” Pelli said during the charette.

LCOR did not participate in the charette.

Councilman Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist 2) of Germantown hopes he can bring LCOR and preservationists together behind closed doors to work out a compromise. LCOR has leased the building through 2007 so demolition is not imminent.

‘‘I think there’s some merit to everyone’s argument,” Knapp said. ‘‘I think it’s important to sit people down and have some meaningful dialogue.”

In the meantime, ‘‘We’re going to pursue this in the court of public opinion,” Goldstein said.