Duncan supports razing of Comsat

June 1, 2005
Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer

Historians argue for preservation

In what commission staff calls an unusual move, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has weighed in against preserving the Comsat building in Clarksburg as an historic site.

Duncan cites concern about negatively impacting the viability of the county's highly touted Interstate 270 Technology Corridor if developers are not allowed to raze the Comsat building as part of their plan for the 230-acre site.

"There is concern in the development community that the [historic] designation of this building would set a precedent for designation of other buildings within the Corridor, potentially interfering with the continued operation and growth of the Technology Corridor," Duncan wrote in a May 24 letter to Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage.

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

The county's Historic Preservation Commission determined after three nights of hearings earlier this year that Comsat, which opened in 1969, was historically significant not only for the work done there, but because it was an early design work by now world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli.

Duncan recommends in his letter that the current property owner, Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR, be required to document the history of the building and "include an exhibit detailing its contributions in a future building lobby."

The Planning Board met Thursday and was scheduled to vote on historic designation for the Comsat building and 33-acres of its campus. Berlage was absent from the meeting and, although testimony was heard, the vote was tentatively rescheduled for June 30. Once the board votes, the issue will be forwarded to the County Council for a final decision.

Gwen Wright, a historic preservation supervisor, said having the county executive offer an opinion on a proposed historic designation at this stage is unusual.

LCOR wants to demolish the building to make way for new development. Attorneys for LCOR dispute the claim that Pelli designed the building and cite extreme financial burden if forced to preserve the Comsat building and part of its campus.

Lawyer Stephen Elmendorf, of Linowes and Blocher, represented LCOR at Thursday's board session. He reiterated the contention of expert witness Daniel Koski-Karell that Comsat is not a Pelli building. Koski-Karell, an anthropologist, testified at the Historic Preservation Commission but did not speak Thursday.

Meanwhile, Pelli sent the Planning Board two letters identifying the building as one of his earliest works and urging historic designation.

Wright told the board that even if Pelli was not involved, the ground-breaking early satellite work done in the Comsat building makes it worthy of historic designation.

In testimony Thursday, Elmendorf told the board, "With its proposed designation of a privately owned commercial building of this size, with a proposed historic setting of this magnitude, and with complete disregard to its years of administrative application of the 50-year standard, the Historic Preservation Commission is seeking to take this county into an entirely new universe of historic designation."

He added, "It is doing so with a complete disregard of the enormous financial impact to the commercial building's owner."

Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, testified in support of LCOR.

"Property owners like LCOR should be able to rely on recent master plan recommendations when they purchase property for redevelopment and not have the rug pulled out from under them," he said.

The Clarksburg Master Plan does not specifically address Comsat. It recommends the property for mixed-use development with homes, a transit center and up to 4 million square feet of employment space.

University of Maryland professors Isabelle Gournay and Mary Corbin Sies nominated the building for historic designation, submitting a 35-page annotated explanation of the building's importance plus design sketches, photographs and maps.

Historic Preservation Commissioner David Rotenstein testified Thursday night in support of historic designation. He also sent the Planning Board a five-page letter questioning Koski-Karell's qualifications for assessing historic designation and disputing his conclusions.

"I am greatly troubled by Mr. Koski-Karell's 9 March 2005 testimony and his written report," he wrote.

He pointed out Koski-Karell's master's thesis was on the Boucaneers of Hispaniola and his doctoral dissertation was on prehistoric northern Haiti.

"Archaeological expertise, however, is not synonymous with historical and architectural historical expertise," he wrote. "Mr. Koski-Karell strongly asserts that attribution of the Comsat laboratories building to architect Cesar Pelli is 'patently absurd.' ... Professors Gournay and Sies prepared a thoroughly researched [historic preservation] form and its substance does not leave much ambiguity regarding the property's historical significance."

The Comsat building 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.

Professors Gournay and Sies joined other architectural historians, residents of the Clarksburg community and representatives of the Clarksburg Civic Association in testifying for the building's historic designation.

The building meets six of nine criteria for designation, said staff supervisor Wright. 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 building's most significant façade is along I-270. The Historic Preservation Commission determined a 33-acre parcel needs to be preserved to retain the most important view of the building from Interstate 270.

Comsat is one of the most easily identifiable buildings along the I-270 corridor, Wright said.

"It is our landmark gateway to our main street and has been for 37 years," she said.

LCOR bought the Comsat building and its 230-acre campus for $45.5 million in 1997. Lockheed-Martin bought Comsat in 2000 and began dismantling the company.

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

The Historic Preservation Commission suggested the Comsat building be adapted for use as office and retail space. It said the building's interior may be altered and later additions to the rear of the building may be removed.

"On multiple occasions I've pleaded with the property owner to work with us on ideas for ways the building could be integrated into plans for the property," Wright said.

The building is a "white elephant" and not adaptable for another use, Elmendorf said.

In his letter, Duncan also called the building a "white elephant."

He wrote, "While it is true that the building was designed and used for development of satellite technology, it is not used now for technology purposes and it [is] in fact a 'white elephant' because of its interior configuration that was designed to accommodate the need to move satellites throughout its interior."

Elmendorf also told the board that although the Comsat property is 230 acres, only 100 acres is developable because the state and county have reserved part of the property for an I-270 ramp and a station for the Corridor Cities Transitway.

Public comment on the issue will be accepted through Thursday.