Advocates: Fight for Comsat on

Aug. 17, 2005
Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer

Efforts are being made on several fronts to save the Comsat building in Clarksburg, whether they will succeed is very much an open question.

One group filed a lawsuit to get the building declared historic, another met with county councilmen to ask for their help and a third has gone to the Maryland Historic Trust.

World-renowned architects, architectural historians and the Clarksburg community hope they can persuade the Planning Board to reconsider its July decision to not recommend historic status for the building or convince the County Council to consider the building's case without a Planning Board recommendation.

"Our concern is that this is an extremely significant site in the county and one of the most compelling recommendations we've had in years," said Julia O'Malley, chairwoman of the county Historic Preservation Commission. "It would be a loss not to have that icon that shows off the I-270 corridor so well."

The building, at the northern entrance to Montgomery County, signals the county's preeminence to the world, she said.

"It represents Montgomery County as an undisputed leader in the high technology industry nationwide," O'Malley said.

The county's Historic Preservation Commission determined in May that Comsat, which opened in 1969, was historically significant not only because of the early satellite work done there, but also because it was an early design work by Cesar Pelli, a master architect.

The building meets six of nine criteria for designation, according to the commission. It has character; exemplifies a cultural, economic, social and political heritage of the county; is distinctive in characteristic type; represents the work of a master; possesses high artistic value and presents a familiar visual feature of the county.

The Planning Board sided with the building's owner, Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR, which argued against historic designation saying the building is too new and historic designation would be an economic hardship.

LCOR bought the Comsat property in 1997 for $45.5 million and wants to demolish the building and build a mix of townhouses, apartments, retail and offices on the 230-acre campus.

The Historic Preservation Commission said additions to the building and non-important sections of the building can be removed and the building's interior can be remodeled for other uses. Planning staff thinks the campus can be developed without demolishing the building. Pelli has offered to redesign the building free of charge.

"He's one of the top 10 architects in the world and [the Planning Board] didn't even discuss he was offering pro bono services to redesign it," O'Malley said.

Those who want to save the building fear the Planning Board decision was influenced by a letter County Executive Douglas Duncan sent to the board in May saying historic designation would stand in the way of technology development in the I-270 corridor.

Late last month O'Malley and other historic preservation commissioners met with County Council President Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park and Council Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park to ask the council to consider the Comsat nomination.

The council has the final say in preservation matters but the Planning Board is not required to forward recommendations to the council. Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage told O'Malley he was not forwarding the recommendation unless the council asked for it.

"The most important point is the county looks to this and really seriously recognizes what it would be losing by not designating [the building historic]," O'Malley said. "It's such a significant site for the county, we feel it's important for the council to look at it."

Leventhal was non-committal after the meeting.

"I really can't see myself getting out in front of this issue," he said. "The Planning Board reviewed all the information ... and made a decision."

The decision to request it for council consideration is really up to the council president, he said.

Perez could not be reached for comment.

Montgomery Preservation Inc., the Clarksburg Civic Association and some individuals filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court Aug. 5 asking the court to force the Planning Board to reconsider its decision to not declare the building historic. The lawsuit also asked the court to reverse the Planning Board decision and order the case sent to the council.

"We're going to be looking for even more letters of support from other architects and architectural schools," said Wayne Goldstein, president of Montgomery Preservation Inc. He said the fight to save Comsat "has only just begun."

University of Maryland professors Isabel Gournay and Mary Corbin Sies nominated Comsat for inclusion in the national historic registry at the same time they nominated the building for county consideration. The state hired them to catalogue important modern architecture in Maryland in 2001 and in February 2003, the Maryland Historical Trust published an article on the modernist movement study underway by the professors. The article specifically mentioned the Comsat property as a "high priority" site "representing the most influential aspects of the Modern Movement in Maryland."

"It is so much part of what Montgomery County is today," Gournay said. "To demolish everything and not build anything of architectural advantage is a real shame. ... It's a landmark. I don't think they understand that."

Comsat has been inventoried for inclusion in the national registry but has not been formally nominated, said Peter Kurtze, Maryland's national registry administrator.

"I'd have to look at the documentation in a more critical way to see if we have what we need to go forward," he said.