Planning Board: Comsat building not worth preserving

July 13, 2005
Susan Singer-Bart
Staff Writer

Despite an offer from renowned architect Cesar Pelli to update the Comsat building in Clarksburg for free, the Montgomery County Planning Board voted Thursday night against preserving it.

"This was a low moment for historic preservation in Montgomery County," said Historic Preservation Commissioner David Rotenstein after the hearing.

In a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Meredith Wellington dissenting, the Planning Board decided that the Comsat building is not worthy of historic designation and gave its owner permission to demolish it.

LCOR, the building's Berwyn, Pa., owner, wants to tear down the building and build a mix of townhouses, apartments, retail buildings and offices on the 230-acre campus.

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

The building meets six of nine criteria for designation, according to the preservation 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 building's most significant façade is along Interstate 270. The preservation commission determined that a 33-acre parcel needs to be preserved to retain the most important view of the building from I-270.

"The building sings to you ... it looks like it's ready for lift-off," Wellington said.

The commission said additions to the building and non-important sections of the building could be removed and the building's interior could be remodeled for other uses.

Board members expressed more concern for the development potential of the property than for the historic significance of the building.

"The reason the Planning Board is in the process is to go a step beyond the narrow focus on historical designation," said Commissioner Wendy Perdue, who voted in favor of demolishing the structure.

Wellington called her colleagues' votes shortsighted.

"I'm extremely disappointed by the decision of my colleagues," she said. "Clarksburg again will be robbed of something that has meaning to them and their community. I-270 will be drab."

Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage, who also voted for the demolition, asked preservation officials why they did not recommend the building for historic designation when the Clarksburg Master Plan was written 11 years ago. That would have been the appropriate time to talk about historic designation, not spring it on property owners when they are ready to develop a property, he said.

"It's unfair to the property owner," Berlage said.

Historic preservation supervisor Gwen Wright said she thought about the Comsat building in 1994.

"The building was 25 years old, and there was no thought the building or the company were in danger," she said. "The full significance of the building was not yet recognized."

Berlage's criticism that the designation effort just popped up is not supported by the facts, said Rotenstein, the preservation commissioner.

"It is regrettable that there were no opportunities for [Historic Preservation] staff or commissioners or the public to underscore to the Planning Board the fact that significant historical and architectural history studies of the Comsat property had been under way since 2001, approximately four years before the property's owners approached staff with the idea that the property might be developed," he 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.

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

Planner Karen Kumm Morris showed the board plans that would preserve the Comsat building while achieving the employment envisioned in the master plan. LCOR refused to cooperate with planners.

Lawyer Stephen Elmendorf of Linowes and Blocher, which represents LCOR, told the board he did not cooperate with planners because they were set on preserving the building. Commissioners also questioned details of Kumm Morris' design.

In May, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) sent the board a letter saying that the building stood in the way of technology development along the I-270 corridor.

The letter was written before planners had designed ways for developing the site and preserving the building, Wright said.

"We saw the letter as a challenge to show you can still have a significant site for employment here," she said.

LCOR plans to present the Planning Board with its plans for the property in the fall, said Michael Smith, LCOR vice president.

"I think it's disgusting," Kathie Hulley, chairwoman of the Clarksburg Civic Association planning committee, said after the hearing. "Once again the Planning Board is not acting in the best interests of Montgomery County.... They're not leaving Clarksburg with anything."

The County Council may decide to look into the Comsat issue, Wright said. The Planning Board is just one step in the recommendation process.

In the past, Wright said, the County Council has taken up historic preservation cases that were rejected by the Planning Board and sided with the Historic Preservation Commission. But council review is not automatic, Wright said. The council will have to decide whether to get involved.