Sunday, October 05, 2008

Guest Blog: Maryland’s "Bridge to Nowhere"

By Frank Anastasi.

The State of Maryland is about to take a definitive move on the planned Rockville District Courthouse on October 15 when the Department of General Services (DGS) presents the Board of Public Works (BPW) with the contract for demolishing the former Rockville Library where the courthouse is to be built. A local citizen group, Move the Courthouse, wrote to the Governor and the BPW on October 2 calling on the Board to stop the project immediately, and conduct a full investigation of what MTC called DGS’ malfeasance in selecting the site and planning the project.

MTC obtained DGS documents that it says clearly show that DGS “failed to exercise budgetary control, allowing the estimated cost of the project to skyrocket to more than $81 million” and failed to “meet its statutory responsibilities to protect historical resources and evaluate potential environmental impacts.”

The group provided the Board with summary tables that identify specific documents containing the incriminating information, as well as copies of the actual documents it obtained from DGS files under a Maryland Public Information Act request. MTC asked in April that DGS disclose information related to how DGS complied with Maryland’s Environmental Policy Act and Historical Preservation Act in selecting the location and planning the courthouse, and how it became so large and so costly. MTC got access to select DGS files in September.

MTC found that State Senator Ida Ruben dictated a particular type and color of limestone and specific windows for the building. Getting these details exactly right for Senator Ruben was a design-process imperative, as e-mails between the DGS project manager and its architectural design contractors show. “I care about a front façade rendering being the same color limestone that Ida likes. I want that stone to look like the color Ida likes,” the project manager informed his contractor, or “you and I will be answering her questions for hours…and then she will want another rendering, that’s when the new rendering becomes a gift to DGS from my friends at DMJM.”

A value engineering study identified tens of millions of dollars that could have been shaved from the project, such as foregoing the limestone and reducing the height of the building by cutting out wasted air space between each floor. The cost of the project has continued to escalate, however, from around $50 million in late-2005, to $76 million in 2007, now to $81.4 million according to the District 17 Delegation’s just released Annapolis Report.

MTC found letters between DGS and the City of Rockville that show while the City raised concerns as early as 2001, and asked specifically in 2004 to be involved in the early design process, DGS “kept Rockville in the dark” and “snuck its design through”, getting approval from the State Architectural Review Board (ARB) before it showed Rockville the design, without even informing Rockville that it was ready to go before the ARB.

Rockville’s Mayors and Councils and citizens have been opposed to the courthouse since learning of the plan in 2001. Concerns are its massive size, and its incompatibility with the local Master Plan, surrounding Historic Districts (and adjacent structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places), adjacent Pre-K to 8th grade Christ Episcopal School and Church, and the surrounding residential neighborhood. Also, only 20 parking spaces are planned (for judges). The building does not meet zoning code for the site, either.

While MTC has always agreed that a new courthouse is needed in Rockville, it says now that the project as planned is a waste of taxpayers’ money. “We always asked, why can’t we build a better courthouse, at a better location, where adequate parking could be included? Until now, we didn’t realize that we could save money in the process,” says Bridget Newton, an MTC member, and Chair of Rockville’s Town Center Action Team for many years. MTC says that DGS data show the 171,200 square-foot Rockville courthouse as planned would cost $475 per square foot, fifty-four percent more per square foot than it cost to build the new Silver Spring Courthouse. That building was completed a few years ago for $27 million (about $309 per square foot).

The legislature appropriated around $50 million for construction of the project in April. MTC had lobbied the legislature and Governor O’Malley, who agrees with them, and called building the courthouse at the former library site a very bad case of “Urban Planning Malfeasance.” But the District 17 Delegation’s stubborn insistence led by Senator Jennie Forehand prevailed. At one point, the City of Rockville came up with a plan to purchase the site from the State, and contribute money and improvements for an alternative site (the vacant, former Giant grocery store site on N. Washington St. a couple blocks away). But Montgomery County spoiled that deal, saying it would exercise its right to buy the site back from the State for $5 million plus 6% interest over the time since it sold it to the State (also for $5 million).

MTC suggested to the Board, “… in this time of billion dollar budget deficits, the State can do better than spending more than $81 million on this ill-conceived, extravagant, monument to wasteful government spending.” It asked the Board to deny approval of the contract to demolish the old Rockville Library, which it says could save around $3 million. Another $7 million would come back to the State because Montgomery County would by the site back if the courthouse is not built there. The City of Rockville had offered to buy the site previously.

MTC believes that “tens of millions of dollars more could be saved by building a courthouse with a functional design and adequate facilities, at one of several nearby, available, and more-suitable sites.” The former Giant grocery site, and 255 Rockville Pike, located just outside the Circuit Court’s eastern doors, were two sites mentioned.

MTC’s letter to the Board, summary tables of key documents, and copies of all the documents, are available at Rockville’s local blog, Rockville Central. Numerous posts by all sides in the debate over the past year or so can be found at Rockville Central.

Frank Anastasi is a member of the Move the Courthouse Steering Committee.

Opposing views are welcome on Maryland Politics Watch.