Commission vote favors historic designation for Comsat

Apr. 20, 2005
Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer, The Gazette

The owner of the Comsat building in Clarksburg listened as members of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission voted last week to declare the building and a portion of the grounds historic.

Commission staff originally recommended the building and 42.5 acres be deemed historic. The commission's vote was to protect the building and 33 acres.

The 7 to 2 ruling was a victory for the Clarksburg and architectural communities that had argued at two previous hearings on the building's significance, and a setback for the buildings' current owner.

LCOR, a Berwyn, Pa.-based firm, bought the Comsat building and its 230-acre campus for $45.5 million in 1997.

It wants to tear down the building and build a mix of townhouses, apartments, retail buildings and offices on the campus.

Outside the hearing room, LCOR vice president Michael Smith and lawyer Stephen P. Elmendorf, of Linowes and Blocher, vowed to continue to fight the designation.

The Historic Preservation Commission advises the county Planning Board and County Council, which will hold their own hearings on the matter before the designation is official. Elmendorf expects the board and County Council to be more sympathetic to arguments about the financial hardship the designation will cause.

If the building and surrounding grounds are declared historic, LCOR will lose millions of dollars, Smith said.

Although the commission recommended the building be adapted for other uses since the interior of the building is not historic and can be altered, Smith said any conversion would be extremely costly. He had not consulted with architects on the matter.

By the time the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission met April 13 for its third hearing on the Comsat building, the issue seemed to be less one of whether to declare the building and grounds historic than of how much of the property needed to be preserved.

Commission members agreed with staff member Joey Lampl that the building meets six of nine criteria for designation. 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 by being one of the most easily identifiable buildings along the Interstate-270 corridor.

Comsat was created by Congress in the Communications Act of 1962 to develop a global telecommunications satellite network and advance the American mission in space.

It was a private company, traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Lockheed-Martin bought Comsat in 2000 and began dismantling the company.

The Comsat building is one of the first buildings designed by internationally-renowned architect Cesar Pelli. It has an aluminum and glass exterior and is organized internally along a central spine with wings. Looking at it now shows the model for National Airport, another Pelli-designed building.

The building's most significant façade of the Comsat building is along I-270.

Native trees were used on the campus to give the impression the building is a "machine in the garden."

Staff recommended preserving enough of the building's setting to maintain the view from I-270. Comsat was the most northern building along the interstate when it was built in 1969.

Only 100 acres of the property is developable because the state and county have reserved part of the property for a future I-270 ramp and a station for the Corridor Cities Transitway, a light rail or bus line that will connect Clarksburg to the Shady Grove Metro station, Elmendorf told the commission.

"To recoup the density we would lose here, we have to build high rise retail and offices," he said.

Any project would require a certain amount of green space, said Commissioner Lee Burstyn. "The green space we are considering could be part of your green space."

"We can meet our green space requirements without your help," Elmendorf replied.

Commissioners at the March hearing asked staff to consider preserving smaller settings for the building.

Lampl began last week's hearing with a video of views of the building from a vehicle travelling at 55 mph along I-270. She offered five different settings and showed how each affected views of the building.

"The foremost goal is to find a setting that helps preserve the building," Lampl said.

When asked, Elmendorf refused to rank the options by preference.

"To us, none of those environmental settings are acceptable," he said.

The commission should select the appropriate setting based on National Park Service guidelines, said Commissioner Kimberly Prothro Williams.

Changes can be made to a historic setting as long as the commission reviews and approves the changes, said Gwen Wright, historic preservation supervisor.

"A larger environmental setting doesn't mean less developable land," said Commissioner Steven Breslin. "It means land that has review restrictions. That would encourage the developer to come back with a compatible design we would approve."

Developer vows to continue fight at council