Historical trust opts not to block renovation of Penney building


The Maryland Historical Trust hasn't finished reviewing plans for the former J. C. Penney building, now being renovated in downtown Westminster. But trust officials opted not to block or delay a low-interest state loan for the project.

The Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development's loan review committee has approved a $165,000 loan that is a key part of the financing package put together by the brothers who own Max Realty, Robert and David Max. The 15-year loan is at 4 percent annual interest.

If the historical trust had ruled the project unacceptable, "We could not provide the funding," explained David A. Schultz, the state agency's chief of technical assistance.

"We're going to work to make the best of the situation," said Michael Day, chief of preservation services for the trust.

Spokeswoman Susan Gregson said the trust has never come in at the end of a project and raised problems with it. She said it is unclear whether the law allows the trust to require developers to redo a project judged unacceptable.

The Penney building renovation encountered problems last month with Westminster's historic district commission. The local group has no legal authority but used persuasive powers and its links to the state trust to persuade David Max to restore the building's facade in the original Flemish style masonry (every other brick turned at a right angle). David Max originally planned to use standard masonry.

"That building is going to look many, many times better than it ever has," said Robert Max. "It will be in keeping with the general architecture and design of other buildings in downtown Westminster."

Mr. Day, the trust preservation chief, declined to say what historic value the 53-year-old building on West Main Street might have.

"It's a 20th-century commercial building with numerous remakes and make overs," he said.

Robert Max said the building is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places and "did not appear to be of historic significance."

He said the brothers were unaware that they needed any historic agency approvals until the final review of their loan application. He said they went ahead with the renovation because they had pledged to tenants that the building would be ready for occupancy in June.

From a financial standpoint, the Penney building project is "about as safe a loan as you're going to be able to get," Mr. Schultz said.

The state loan program is set up to share the risk of redevelopment projects in urban renewal areas. The state government agreed to take a third position for the Penney building loan, which means that if the project went bankrupt, city government and a private bank would be in line as creditors ahead of state government.

Tenants of the building, which has been renamed Winchester West, include Westminster city government finance and housing offices, Diversified Blueprint Services Inc., cable television Channel 19 and two others not yet made public. The city housing office and blueprint service will move from Winchester Exchange, an East Main Street building also owned by the Max brothers.

The Max brothers bought the Penney building last year. J. C. Penney Co. closed its downtown store in 1990 and opened a catalog store in Cranberry Mall.

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