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Developers plan new building on site of arson in Annapolis


Developers said yesterday that they would rebuild on the site of a historic Annapolis house destroyed by two arson fires last week - preserving the row of disputed properties in front of the city's planned parking garage on West Street.

"We'll rebuild it to scale," said Gavin Buckley, one of the Annapolis developers whose bid to refurbish the block of five 100-year-old houses into commercial space was referred by city staff last week to the city council for consideration.

An Annapolis man was arrested and charged Saturday with intentionally setting one of the two fires at 181 West St.

Fire Capt. Leonard Clark said the reason for the arsons remains a mystery. Investigators suspect that the vacant buildings, slated for redevelopment for use as commercial buildings, were being used by homeless people.

Clark said George Davis, 44, has been charged in the fire May 16 at the house - the first of the two fires.

The second blaze destroyed the structure the next day, Clark said. It also caused more than $3,000 in damage to the house next door. No one has been charged in that fire.

Davis, whose last permanent address was in the 1600 block of Forest Drive, was charged with occupying an uninhabitable structure in 1998, according to court records.

He was being held yesterday at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center on a $650,000 bond charged with one count of arson, which carries a possible 30-year prison sentence.

Developers and city officials said they did not expect a substantial delay in the project because of the fires.

"The timing was horrible," Buckley said. "Our project passed its first reading [last] Monday."

A public hearing on the project is scheduled for next week.

Buckley and Jody Danek - owners of Tsunami restaurant - and their partners have proposed turning the houses into an upscale restaurant, fashion boutique, gift shop and salon and day spa, while critics of the preservation project have debated the historic value of the houses.

Several high-ranking city officials had wanted to tear down the houses.

The fires demonstrate why moving forward quickly with a project is important, Buckley said.

"The longer we wait, the worse the houses get," he said.

The charred remains of the house were bulldozed last week because the structure was unsound, officials said.

The five buildings were saved from wrecking crews by a city council measure that required the city to give first consideration to bids that would rehabilitate them.

Some West Street merchants and residents speculated that the city had not properly secured the 19th-century houses, in part, because some city officials have questioned their historic value.

However, city spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly said the buildings have been boarded up several times. City firefighters put in a request to have 181 West St. boarded up again after the fire Wednesday, Roskelly said.

The maintenance worker who cares for vacant properties was out that day, but he reported to the site early Thursday and discovered the house engulfed in flames, Roskelly said.

"We're not talking about lack of concern by the city," he said. "Short of posting guards there 24 hours a day ... the city has been quite diligent."

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