City suspends work on parking garage built in flood plain


The state has ordered Baltimore to stop construction on a partially completed municipal parking garage near City Hall because the building sits in the Jones Falls flood plain.

The city neglected to obtain mandatory permits from the state Water Resources Administration before construction began last August.

"They went ahead without a permit," said Catherine Pieper Stevenson, chief of the Water Resources Administration.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said that the city initially disagreed with the state on legal jurisdiction over the flood plain.

"A big problem is a disagreement with the state about which [environmental] regulations apply to that site, ours or theirs," the mayor said.

Those regulations, along with the architects' contract with the city to design the garage, have been under review by the city law department.

George L. Balog, the city director of public works, said his office knew that the building was in the flood plain before construction began. His office applied for permits, he said, and allowed work to start before the permit was approved.

"We assumed the permit was granted without having it in hand," said Mr. Balog, blaming the problem on a breakdown of communication between the city and state.

Mr. Balog also said his department assumed that all necessary research for the project had been done by the architect and consultant, Desman Associates of New York City.

On March 14, after inspecting new construction of the Legal Aid Bureau in the same flood plain adjacent to the garage, the state delivered a stop-work order to the city, abruptly halting work on the approximately $7 million garage at Lexington and Gay streets.

Work can not resume until the building is modified to meet state standards for buildings erected inside flood plains. A foundation and three stories of the planned eight-story garage have already been built at the site hugging the western edge of the Jones Falls Expressway, just north of the city's War Memorial building.

"It's a matter of elevation; part of the building is too low," said Mr. Balog. "Part of the building goes underground 5 or 6 feet."

The city expects the architect to deliver modification plans and a bill for needed changes by today. "I hope it's well under a million dollars," Mr. Balog said.

The changes involve knocking down ground-level walls, eliminating 47 ground-floor parking spaces and changing the way cars enter and leave the garage to allow water to flow through the building in the event of the kind of flood expected to occur once in a century.

"There's no question the structure will have to be modified; it doesn't allow water to flow through freely so it doesn't back up and create additional flood hazards," said Ms. Stevenson of the Water Resources Administration. "Structures can be built in the flood plain if they can be designed to not increase flooding on other properties, [but] they are going to have to make significant changes to make it comply."

Mr. Balog, who said he does not expect the city to be financially liable for the modifications, is waiting for a review of who is liable for the cost of modifications from Associate City Solicitor Martin P. Welch.

"If someone built a home for you, wouldn't you expect it to be built outside of a flood plain?" Mr. Balog said of the garage building designed three years ago. "As the owner, the city expected that the architectural firm we hired would do all of this work. I don't want to go into details; there might be legal complications."

John Rom, an architect with Desman Associates, declined to make specific comments about the garage but did say that his firm had been "taking directions from the city" while planning the project.

"Normally an owner provides [architects with] a survey for a property as part of their legal ownership. You'd expect them to tell you what restrictions there are," Mr. Rom said. "We're being cooperative with the city to try and get the problem resolved, but it's up to the city to decide who is liable for the bill" to fix the building.

The garage is being built by J. Vinton Schafer & Sons Inc. of White Marsh, whom the city told to stop work, Mr. Balog said.

"We sent them off the job, and we're not paying them right now," Mr. Balog said. "When all this hit us out of the blue, we didn't know what to do. . . . We paid [the builder] for about a week when we thought maybe we could work this thing out right away. When we found it would take some time, we stopped paying them."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad