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The old is new again in county office plan

The Baltimore Sun

After nine years and $7.1 million spent on planning for ways to provide a modernized county government office complex, Howard County's leaders are returning to their first and cheapest idea -- renovating the George Howard Building.

"It's not perfect. We can't afford perfect," County Executive Ken Ulman said Monday, adding that he has been wrestling with the costly, difficult proposal since taking office almost 14 months ago.

The decision means delaying next week's County Council vote on one small part of the office-space plan -- Ulman's $4 million request to buy one floor of a proposed four-story office condominium building considered central to the revitalization of Oakland Mills Village Center. Several council members expressed reservations about the Oakland Mills project at a work session Monday.

The entire project -- including the Oakland Mills building -- would become part of the fiscal 2009 capital budget that Ulman will announce about April 1. The council will vote on the budget at the end of May, and it will take effect July 1.

Ulman said that the 32- year-old George Howard Building is structurally sound, and that renovations would extend the life of the building another two or three decades. He said it can be renovated for about $20 million, a price the county can afford, compared with the estimated $140 million price tag of a new building.

By scrapping the previous plans, however, a proposed Circuit Court building and two parking garages, which would have driven the total price tag up to about $260 million, die with it.

Ulman said he had hoped to concentrate county offices in one place, based on the plans developed by former County Executive James N. Robey. The county will keep and renovate the Gateway Building and the Dorsey Building, both in Columbia, if the council approves the latest plan.

"We've gotten by, and we'll continue to do so," Ulman said.

Ulman's new plan would cost about $40 million initially. The cost would be reduced later by the sales of surplus county properties, and by energy savings a renovated building would achieve, he said.

The plan includes:

About $20 million in renovations to the George Howard Building, including new air-handling equipment, windows, outer metal skin, insulation, bathrooms and a redesigned interior intended to use space more efficiently. The building would be empty for a year while the work is under way. County Council meetings likely would be held in high school auditoriums during construction.

A new $3 million, 60,000- square-foot warehouse on the parking lot of the sprawling Dorsey Building off Route 108 in Columbia. The warehouse would be used to create space in the current building that could then be used by county agencies displaced by the renovations.

The $4 million purchase of one floor -- about 15,000 square feet -- of the proposed Metroventures' Meridian Square office building at Oakland Mills Village Center.

$10 million in renovations to the Dorsey Building and the Gateway office building in Columbia's Gateway Business Park.

The renovation plan would involve a giant shuffling of agencies among county buildings.

Ulman said he intends to sell two county-owned parcels in Ellicott City. One is the 27-acre wooded lot on Rogers Avenue near U.S. 40 bought in 2000 for an earlier plan to build an office complex. Another is about 20 acres the county owns near the District Court building on Court House Drive. The county would also sell the former Gateway School building in Clarksville, Ulman said. The capital budget still contains $10 million for the campus project that can also be used to pay for the new plan.

"We have to move forward with a solution," Ulman said, noting that the George Howard Building has not been renovated since it was built in 1976, and its major mechanical systems are worn out.

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