Hagerstown officials looking at construction vs. renovation for former Susquehanna Bank property

March 09, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Conceptual drawings, prepared by Bushey Feight Morin Architects LLC of Hagerstown, depicting what the BOE offices could look like situated between Washington County Circuit Court and the Potomac Bead Company building at 53 W. Washington St.
Bushey Feight Morin Architects Inc.

With time of the essence to entice the Washington County Board of Education to move downtown, some Hagerstown officials said they believe the unit block of West Washington Street is the best available site because of its visibility, accessibility and proximity.

More specifically, the city wants to purchase and demolish the former Susquehanna Bank property at 55-57-59 W. Washington St. and the current Columbia Bank properties at 81 and 83 W. Washington St. to make way for new construction of the BOE’s administrative offices, Mayor David S. Gysberts said Thursday.

“We’re not looking to rehab those buildings,” Gysberts said, noting that the city wants to maintain some level of control over the design of new construction regardless of any developer who undertakes it.

“The details yet to be worked out are how the site is actually developed, and whether that’s a partnership between the city and the board of education to acquire a developer,” he said.

After the properties are acquired by the city, Gysberts said, the plan would be to turn them over “on the cheap” in order to entice competition among developers who would want to take on the task of construction.

“Whether that’s (Peter) Perini or Sora or any other developer, obviously the more competition there is, the better to drive down the cost,” Gysberts said.

Who will develop it?

Exactly what development entity would take on the school system’s facility build, at this point, is unknown, according to city officials.

Perini, a local developer, told the school board this past week that he was interested in developing a building in downtown Hagerstown to house multiple tenants, including the school system’s central offices.

Sora Development, a Towson, Md.-based real estate development firm, along with several others in an out-of-the-area group of investors, has expressed interest in developing a master redevelopment plan for the city, which could include building a new BOE facility.

The city signed a nonbinding and nonexclusive agreement Friday with a real estate investment group that includes Sora Development and Skanska Construction. The group is represented by local attorney D. Bruce Poole and Dane Bauer of the engineering firm Daft McCune Walker.

The group requested five weeks to meet with city stakeholders and develop projects that would meet the goals of those stakeholders as well as the city in its revitalization efforts.

“Not only will they be putting together all these different stakeholders in that unit block ... Washington, Potomac, Summit and Antietam, but it would also be working their connections at the state level because of this state money that’s supposedly out there,” Gysberts said.

When asked if the city selecting a proposed site for the BOE potentially could interfere with whatever plan the group might roll out in the next few months, Hagerstown City Councilman Kristin B. Aleshire said it would not, indicating the city would be in the “driver’s seat” for that type of decision-making.

No real discussions about the West Washington Street site have taken place to date, Aleshire said.

“I don’t think (it interferes) because I don’t think you could define on paper what the plan will be or what driving factors or parties will be part of it,” he said.

In terms of planning on the city’s end, Gysberts said not a whole lot can happen in those five weeks anyway, but discussions will be ongoing with property owners and interested developers in an attempt to create competition for the job.

“The best thing of all worlds would be to have this kind of competition to see who can build this building because I think that’s going to reduce the cost, ultimately,” he said.

New drawing

Conceptual drawings depicting what the BOE offices could look like situated between Washington County Circuit Court and the Potomac Bead Company building at 53 W. Washington St. were unveiled at Tuesday’s State of the City address.

The renderings, prepared by Bushey Feight Morin Architects LLC of Hagerstown, show several street-level views as well as an overhead view of the area, which includes a parking garage built to the rear of Columbia Bank’s current parking lot that borders West Antietam Street.

The overhead view drawing shows the BOE building as having a U-shape, with a courtyard area in the middle that exits toward the parking deck.

A recent study commissioned by the city and completed by a Greater Hagerstown Committee (GHC) task force estimates that new construction downtown ranges from $16.8 million to $18.25 million, including land acquisition and demolition work.

The school board, which is exploring its options for moving its central offices, has signed an agreement to consider purchasing the Allegheny Energy property on Downsville Pike south of Hagerstown for $5.5 million. That building then would be renovated, school officials have said.

‘The most potential’

The five-member city council has come to a general consensus that the West Washington Street site offers the most potential benefit when compared to other locations outlined in a GHC task force study.

Aleshire said the buildings largely are vacant, include fewer property owners and have fewer historical limitations than the West Antietam Street location identified in the study for consideration.

Putting the BOE offices on West Washington Street, a main city thoroughfare, provides adequate infrastructure to accommodate the school system employees and allows for room directly to the rear for a new parking deck, Aleshire said.

Another benefit, according to Aleshire, is the proximity the school offices would have to the administrative offices of Washington County and the city as well as the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, which already collaborates with the school system in providing classroom space for students of the nearby Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

“Those are some of the things that led to, at least my belief, that that was the most timely location that had the greatest benefit to select,” Aleshire said.

Gysberts spoke of many of the same benefits in conversations last week.

Construction vs. renovation

Although Gysberts and City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner have said they prefer new construction, exactly how the BOE offices could be moved downtown — specifically via new construction, renovation of the properties or a combination of the two — can’t be definitely nailed down just yet, Aleshire said.

“I am clearly aware, as others are, that there are thoughts and ideas out there on whether you rehab those structures or you build new,” Aleshire said.

Aleshire pointed to three examples of recent downtown projects that employed different strategies, including the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a renovation; University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, a mix of renovation and new construction; and the new Washington County Free Library, almost a total reconstruction.

“While the goal is to identify a location and secure those pieces that make that location a viable option in the board of ed’s consideration, I think that for us, in order to make that a viable option, we need to be open to what level of deconstruction or reconstruction that entails,” he said.

City Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said there currently are “other interests and parties” in play that the city would need to accommodate before making any final decisions on how to develop the BOE offices on West Washington Street.

“The facade on those buildings, I don’t think has the classic look of old Hagerstown that some other places do, at least the facade of the current building there,” he said. “So (construction) might be a combination of those things ... in my opinion.”

As far as potential property acquisitions, Brubaker said the city has had conversations with Columbia Bank, and bank officials have expressed interest in receiving offers.

According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, Bank Hagerstown Trust Co. is listed as the owner of the Columbia Bank properties at 81 and 83 W. Washington St. Each property was valued at about $1.2 million as of July 1, 2012, records show.

The former Susquehanna Bank property was valued at $706,900 as of July 1, 2012, according to assessment records. The listed owner of that property is Hager5 LLC, which is a business venture of current county Commissioner John F. Barr and Funkstown Mayor Paul D. Crampton Jr.

In November 2012, the limited liability company took ownership of the four-story building, which houses the former bank and an office building, for $285,000, records show.

The former bank property has been the temporary home of the Washington County Free Library’s downtown branch while the new facility on South Potomac Street is being built.

Creating a centerpiece

Gysberts has called the unit block of West Washington Street “ground zero” in terms of downtown redevelopment because it presents an opportunity to tie together several other pieces — both court buildings, Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, The Maryland Theatre and the new library.

“It’s definitely an area of interest. It’s the heart of downtown,” Brubaker said. “The school board has said that they need to have everything so quickly, and that’s an area where there’s sort of an opportunity. Plus, it makes sense for downtown.”

Other investments by the city in the area include the former CVS building, which has been transformed into a small-business incubator and additional space for USMH, and the buildings at 43-53 W. Washington St. that the city is in the process of acquiring to renovate and turn back over to private hands.

Brubaker said everything still is “up in the air” at this point, but the city will remain “open to anything that works” to get the BOE to move downtown.

“We want to work with the (school) board and its staff, and find a way to meet on common grounds,” he said. “That’s something that we came up with that we think can be made to work.”

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