Harford County officials expect to know more about the prospects for salvaging the office building at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air over the next two months as they await a pair of studies that may show the way forward.
The building was cleared of more than 70 county personnel Jan. 3 after structural problems—first detected in October—were confirmed by a second engineering study. An engineering review of the building found stress fractures in the building’s supports, and warned that the entire structure could eventually pancake into itself.
At the time, County Executive David Craig said the building represented “a seven-figure problem.”
On Wednesday, Mary Chance, the county’s director of community services, said the same engineering firm which originally declared the building unsound would soon undertake a study aimed at finding ways to temporarily shore up the building. Chance said those repairs would allow personnel to re-enter the building and remove large filing units and heavy equipment such as photocopiers needed for county employees to carry out their jobs.
However, putting those employees back in the building remained a murkier proposal, she said.
“The engineer told us that the building is not safe to occupy,” she said. “That process is not one that will allow us to put people back in the building.
Chance said she hoped that engineering review would be done in the next four to six weeks, with the files and equipment moved out within six to eight weeks.
After that, a separate engineering firm will undertake a comprehensive review of the building which will determine the cost of repairing the building and allow county leaders to decide whether to pay to fix it or knock it down. Chance said a timeline for the completion of that study and a decision has not been determined.
Officials may have known the structure was less than sound when the county, under then-Executive Eileen Rehrmann, bought the building in 1996 for $1.4 million as a home for the County Council chambers and other offices, according to Robert Wagner, a member of the county council at the time.
“We knew that the building was built a bit shoddily when the county bought it, but the deal was pretty much done when they brought it to the council,” he told The Dagger in an e-mail.
“There was a huge expense when the council moved there, total demolition of the first floor and a major remodeling job,” Wagner said. “HVAC systems were purchased, upper floors were remodeled to suit other county offices, etc. My guess is that instead of a building that originally cost the county $1.4 million, we probably have a building that we have invested nearer $4 million in.”
The building was erected in 1985 by now-disgraced local developer Steven Hankins. In the years following construction of the 212 S. Bond St. building, Hankins’ construction practices and bookkeeping methods were called into question in at least 45 civil suits and other criminal charges. Hankins eventually filed for bankruptcy both personally and professionally, and in 1992 was sentenced to six months in prison for cashing a forged lien in the amount of $68,000.
It’s unclear whether the county inspectors knew during the building’s construction that it was unsound, but one source told The Dagger that county officials halted work on the structure several times.
Aaron Tomarchio, Craig’s chief of staff, said the administration had heard similar rumblings.
“We did hear concerns with the inspections done at the time [of construction], but we’re not sure how they were addressed,” Tomarchio said, pointing to the more than two decades which have passed since that time. “We’ve heard similar rumors. But our thought is moving forward, right now.”
Some have called on the county to find or build a new office to house the displaced county workers. Craig had proposed the construction of a new building located at the nearby former Harford Tire lot at the intersection of Hickory Avenue and Route 22.
It’s a move that District A Councilman Dion Guthrie said he wishes had happened.
“I hear talk of over $1 million to fix it and what would you have? A building you could never sell with all the problems,” he said. “If we had done that, we’d be in the [new] building now.”
“I support it now more than ever,” he said.
Guthrie has spent more than eight years at 212 S. Bond St. and said he saw constant maintenance going on, with workers removing ceiling tiles and climbing into the ceiling. Temperature control is a problem, he said, with the building being hot in summer, cold in winter, and most offices have space heaters.
Guthrie said he has seen cracks in first floor windows and upper level walls, as well as “floors that don’t seem quite even.”
“I don’t want to go back in that friggin’ building,” he said.
Bel Air Mayor Dave Carey said the decision on what to do with the building will ultimately lie with the county. While the facility lies within the town’s borders, Carey said the town contracts with the county for its building inspectors.
But Carey also had his own opinion on what the county should do.
“Yeah, knock it down,” he said. “It’s an eyesore. It doesn’t fit with the other buildings in the area.”
In place of the “black box,” Carey said he’d prefer “a nice-looking building with a parking garage behind it.”
But Wagner said he believes the “black box” might not be beyond hope, saying that the amount of money put into it by taxpayers already makes a salvage attempt worth trying.
“I’m pretty sure that it would be wiser to spend another million or so to shore this structure up and make it safe once again before we seriously consider building the much wanted NEW office complex at the tire lot,” Wagner wrote in an e-mail. “Everyone from the black box has now been inconvenienced and I am certain that the council will not want to share [meeting space] too long with the Board of Education, so the pressure just got turned up a notch.”
Still, Wagner seemed resigned to the fact that a permanent move was in the cards.
“That new building could probably be completed before this term is out,” he said. “Do I believe there are very valid safety and structural concerns regarding the black box, yes. Will I be surprised if we concentrate our efforts on the black box to make it habitable once again, you betcha!”
Dagger staff writers Cindy Mumby and Brian Goodman contributed reporting to this article.