Planners get bevy of letters on Comsat status

July 6, 2005
Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer

The public comment period closed in the debate over whether to make the Comsat building historic, but not without a final round of letters to add to the impassioned discussion.

The county Planning Board is set to reconvene on the issue Thursday.

Letters included one from the Comsat official who helped negotiate development guidelines for the site during the 1994 Clarksburg Master Plan process.

Raymond M. Westfall, who was general manager of corporate services for Comsat, said that board staff told Comsat it would be allowed to create a new large-scale corporate office environment or mixed-use community on the property in return for accommodating a planned transit station and a highway interchange.

"We would not have agreed to accommodate all of these public amenities on-site if we were required to retain the Comsat building and accommodate a no-build zone on the most developable land adjacent to the building," Westfall wrote from his home in Williamsburg, Va. "The notion that the building and 34-acres of land adjacent to the building should now be subject to historic preservation restrictions is absolutely inconsistent with the master plan provisions that I negotiated in good faith with Park and Planning staff, the Planning Board and the County Council."

The county's Historic Preservation Committee has recommended historic standing for the building and 33 surrounding acres.

The current owner of the property along Interstate 270 in Clarksburg wants to raze the building and redevelop the 230-acre site with a mix of housing, retail and office space.

Historic designation will require the County Council to amend the Clarksburg Master Plan.

Historians, architects and citizens have argued in favor of protection. The current property owner, County Executive Douglas Duncan, and members of the business community have argued against.

Comments added to the record in recent weeks reflect both positions.

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. Pioneering work was done there.

"The building, constructed adjacent to an Interstate highway and highly visible due to its unusual transparency, projected to the world the ambitions of the owners, the county and our country at the birth of the satellite telecommunications industry," Christine Madrid French, president of the Recent Past Preservation Network in Arlington, Va., wrote in her letter.

Richard Longstreth, chairman of the Maryland Governor's Consulting Committee on the National Register of Historic Places, wrote, "The former Comsat building is of immense historical significance to the county, and arguably to the nation, as a center for research for the satellite industry, ... research that had a profound effect not only on our space program, but on American technology more broadly."

The Historic Preservation Commission came to a similar conclusion after three nights of public hearings. The building meets six of nine criteria for preservation and was designed by world-renowned architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed National Airport, the commission said.

In addition, the groundbreaking early satellite work done in the building makes it worthy of designation, said Gwen Wright, historic preservation supervisor.

As the review process has continued at the Planning Board, there has been some debate as to the veracity of citing Pelli as the designer.

Lawyer Stephen P. Elmendorf, who represents the building's current owner, LCOR, based in Berwyn, Pa., told the board at the May hearing that an expert witness had spoken by phone to Phil Jacobson, who claimed to be the main designer of the building.

The board asked for written proof, but LCOR responded that will not be possible because when Jacobson heard LCOR wanted to demolish the building, he refused to cooperate.

"If anyone insisted upon having Mr. Jacobson publicly testify about what he said ... he would deny he said [it] and would assert that the Comsat building was the work of Cesar Pelli, and Cesar Pelli alone," wrote LCOR Vice President Michael Smith in an affidavit filed with the board.

Pelli added his own letters to the public record identifying the building as one of his earliest works and urging historic designation.

The Clarksburg Master Plan does not reference the building specifically, but it does identify the campus as the site for a future transit station and mixed-use development.

David W. Popp, president-elect of the local chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties, wrote, "To burden a private property owner with historic preservation of this magnitude is unprecedented and would hinder future development in the county."

Duncan expressed the same concern in a letter to the board in May.

But the Historic Preservation Commission said the interior and some additions to the building's exterior do not have to be preserved and that building is an excellent candidate for adaptive reuse. LCOR has said adapting the building for another use will be too expensive and will not consider the idea.

"I think that when the primary argument for demolition is that a building or setting cannot be adapted to a new use, the efforts and imagination of the design team should be reassessed," wrote Chevy Chase resident Linda B. Lyons in her letter to the board. "There are too many good adaptations throughout the country to allow that argument to drive the issue."