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City, county officials consider options for structures near new library

February 03, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • Three buildings on a tract off Baltimore Street in Hagerstown, now owned by Washington County, have fallen into disrepair over the years.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

While construction of the new Washington County Free Library is nearing completion, an unknown factor of the overall project has caught the eye of some City of Hagerstown officials.

At the rear of the library site on the corner of South Potomac and East Antietam streets is a 2.77-acre tract purchased by Washington County in 2010 to install an accompanying parking lot. On the land are three boarded-up buildings with “historic” distinction. The entire site has about 120,000 square feet of usable space.

The former Massey auto body building, the largest structure on the property, and a pair of two-story brick residential buildings have fallen into disrepair over the years, and questions remain about what can be done with them.

The Maryland Historical Trust designates the structures as historic, a label that places some restrictions on funding that can be used for demolition, but does not prohibit demolition.

Some city and county officials — with an eye toward overall revitalization of the area — do not agree with the historic designation and think the buildings should come down.

“There’s no reason why it should stay up,” Hagerstown Mayor David S. Gysberts said last week of the Massey building, adding that he doesn’t agree that any of the buildings have any historical significance in their current state.

City Councilmen Kristin B. Aleshire and Donald F. Munson shared Gysberts’ point of view.

Aleshire, a former county commissioner who voted against the $1.17 million land acquisition in April 2010 because of the potential long-term renovation or demolition costs, said he looks at government-owned properties as assets or liabilities.

The Massey building is a major liability that, without a clear directive or purpose for it, could prevent a “good project” in the new library from becoming a “great (project) for the public,” Aleshire said.

“I look at that building. I look at the library; the plaza that’s being created,” he said. “When you walk up and you peer out that back window (of the library) ... what you see is an abandoned building with broken-out windows and old basic concrete-block construction. It detracts from the larger presence that that library is going to have for our downtown.”

Munson said he would support tearing down the building.

“I don’t think that that building does anything for that general community around there,” he said. “It’s, in my view, a building with absolutely no character whatsoever. I really can’t figure out what part of history it has to make it valuable.”

The future of the Massey building has not been discussed by the Washington County Board of Commissioners thus far, but likely will be included in the county’s budget process in the coming months, according to Assistant County Administrator Sarah Lankford Sprecher.

Sprecher said the county would like to have the building at least “spruced up” once the library project wraps up in May or June.

“We will do something with it after the library project and we’re going to discuss that in our upcoming capital improvement budget,” she said. “But there’s nothing set in stone.”

The one-story building is being used to store materials for the ongoing construction of the new library, Sprecher said.

Commissioner William B. McKinley said demolition and new construction often can be completed at a lower cost than renovating an old building, but the Trust has “quite a bit of clout” that could force the county to renovate rather than raze the building.

McKinley said the county has time to figure out what to do with the Massey building because nothing could be done until the county finishes the library and vacates the one-story building.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said she believes the only aspect of the Massey building left that could be considered historic is the facade that faces East Baltimore Street. She noted a decision by Trust officials about Bester Elementary School.

The Trust felt the school did not have enough original design and architecture left to protect it from demolition, she said. A new school is in the works now.

“With that point of view ... you just number it, know what was there, document it, and then you can bring it down and have another use for it,” Callaham said.

In the past, the Trust’s historical designation of the Massey building and the two other structures, one formerly used as a flower shop and the other a home, prevented federal and state grants funds from being used if redevelopment of the overall site included demolition, according to Herald-Mail archives.

J. Rodney Little, director and state historic preservation officer for the Trust, said restrictions are only placed on projects that are sponsored, licensed, financially assisted or permitted by state or federal agencies.

No restrictions from the Trust would apply to the property and buildings as long as county money is used, although work might need to be approved by the city’s Historic District Commission, Little said.

Callaham said that once the library is “turnkey ready” and opened to the public, the county could address the buildings to ensure that federal and state funds are not used.

“Once the (library) project is finished ... then the county can take county money and address that Massey building,” she said.

Razing the Massey building and making it a “pad-ready” site for new construction by a new business makes more sense than renovating, Callaham said, calling it a potential “money pit” if it were refurbished as is.

The majority of the city’s $1.5 million contribution toward the library project was the source of funding for the county’s purchase of the land from the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership, which originally bought the land in 2005 and hoped to have town houses built there, according to Herald-Mail archives.

Aleshire has said he encourages a conversation with county officials about what to do with the Massey building, as well as other topics related to the city’s overall master redevelopment plan. Callaham said she is eager for those discussions, too.

“I think it has to return to a taxable property, so I think the county would be looking to sell it,” she said. “We would be doing enough to make it attractive for sale, and then sell it to someone.

“The city wants an all-encompassing master plan for the East End,” Callaham said. “This could be the starting point for something exciting.”

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Editor's note: This story was edited Feb. 5, 2013, to clarify that 120,000 square feet is the amount of usable space on the entire property, not just of a single building on the property.

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