Less than a year after Washington County’s government bought a downtown Hagerstown building for $3 million, a 2009 study by a Frederick, Md., firm found that the county would need to spend $1 million more to fix the building’s fire and life safety problems, The Herald-Mail has learned.
The study listed an additional $2.8 million in recommended, but not required, corrective actions.
The county could move office workers into the building, which it bought in 2008, without making any changes, but that wouldn’t be wise, BMK Architects Inc. of Frederick told the county in the lengthy report obtained recently by the newspaper.
“It is clearly apparent, as described throughout this study, that there are many existing conditions within the building that do not comply with current regulating codes, nor do they promote the safety, health and general welfare of current and future occupants and it is our professional opinion that specific improvements need to be made to the building prior to any increased occupancy,” BMK said in the report.
County Public Works Director Joe Kroboth said he intends to push for the county to do more in meeting modern fire and life safety codes in the building, even though a Maryland code for older buildings would allow the county to move in without improving anything.
“The (Maryland) rehabilitation code allows existing buildings to be used as is, so that’s what sets the condition ‘move-in ready,’” Kroboth said.
“My perspective is, what’s it going to take to get the building to current codes, which is not required? In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do for the safety of the occupants,” which include the building’s current tenants, he said.
On the other hand, Kroboth said, “there’s new fire and life safety technology that comes out every day and most buildings don’t have all the newest, state-of-the-art technology that is available on the market. I could take you to 99 percent of the buildings downtown and probably none of them would have all the newest and latest fire and life safety technology. But should they be vacated immediately? No.”
“Hence the reason, I’m advocating we do this level of improvements before we move a larger number of people in,” Kroboth said.
According to BMK, the “required corrective actions” range from enclosing three stairways or areas near them with fire-rated walls to give occupants protected routes of escape, installing several fire-rated doors, reconfiguring hallways to eliminate dead ends and removing more asbestos.
BMK also listed nearly $2.8 million in “recommended corrective actions ... to improve maintenance requirements, energy efficiency and to meet good engineering practice.”
If the county were to install a full sprinkler system as is “strongly recommended,” then the other requirements might change, dropping the overall cost, BMK said.
“Both lists are based on the study’s findings as well as discussions with local codes officials,” BMK said. Those officials will determine what actually is required after the county decides what renovations it’s going to make, BMK said.
It isn’t clear whether the Washington County Commissioners knew about such problems when they voted 3-2 in March 2008 to buy the 120-128 W. Washington St. building, much of which had been used by banks for decades. The building is sometimes even now referred to as the former PNC Bank building, in recognition of the last in a string of banks to occupy it.
On the day of the vote, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray was quoted as saying that some county departments could move into the building within six months.
The building, which is next door to the county administration building, remains largely empty more than four years later. As in 2008, the county still has three tenants — a law firm on part of the first floor, and another law firm and an accounting firm on the third floor.
Since the purchase, current Commissioners President Terry L. Baker and former Commissioner William J. Wivell — the two commissioners who voted against it largely because of its price — said they never were told the building had problems. They said they were told by county staff before the vote that the building was in “move-in-ready condition.”
Baker, who raised questions last month about the building’s condition, saying it’s “horrendous” and “not even close to move-in condition,” couldn’t be reached for comment last week.
Commissioner John F. Barr, who was president of the board in 2008 and voted in favor of buying the building, said Thursday night he also remembers being told before the vote that the building was in move-in condition.
But after hearing from a reporter some of what BMK found, Barr said he still would have voted to purchase the building. Knowing of such problems “wouldn’t have fazed me, knowing we had the opportunity to buy the property,” Barr said.
The deal to buy the building included purchasing its back lots for an additional $300,000 because the owner wouldn’t sell one without the other. Adjacent lots were obtained from other owners for $1.3 millon, enabling the county to build a public bus transfer station downtown and create more parking areas.
So, Barr said, buying the building was part of a much larger opportunity.
“It was an absolute dire need for more parking, both current and future ... and all the property we now know as the bus transfer station,” Barr said.
He said buying the building “was our commitment to the mayor and the council that the county felt strongly that Hagerstown is our base, our home” for county government.
Barr said he didn’t need to have the county inspect the building before buying it because he knows it well as the owner of an electrical contracting firm for more than 40 years.
“It was safe. It had tenants in it. The bank was operating and had been in it for years. It wasn’t like a building that had been sitting empty for years,” he said.
He said the problems BMK found aren’t uncommon in old buildings.
“There isn’t a building in downtown Hagerstown that any engineering company wouldn’t write the same reports,” as BMK did for this one.
No ‘change in use’
Technically, the building is “move-in-ready,” but not because its fire, life safety and other features have necessarily kept pace with modern codes, according to BMK’s report.
Instead, it qualifies as approved for occupancy as an old building that has been renovated over the years while apparently meeting the codes then in force, and which the county has been planning to keep as an office building, BMK said.
“Because the County’s proposed continued business use of the building does not constitute a ‘change in use,’ as defined by the MBRC (Maryland Building Rehabilitation Code), the code technically allows the new users to occupy the building without meeting any additional code requirements,” BMK said.
In other words, it said, the MBRC “would allow the County to occupy the building as is.”
If the county makes any improvements to the building before moving in, then local code officials would have to determine what new level of code requirements would have to be met, BMK said.
What appears from the street as one building now actually is a two-story building with a finished basement on the left and, connected by hallways inside, a three-story red-brick rowhouse with a basement on the right.
In the 1960s, the two-story side was built and linked to the rowhouse as the new home of Home Federal Savings & Loan. A facade was built across the front, making both structures appear to be the same height.
Over the years, Home Federal Savings & Loan became Home Federal Savings Bank. Then, Home Federal was acquired by Farmers & Mechanics Bank, which eventually was acquired by Mercantile, which had a subsidiary named The Fidelity Bank.
It was Fidelity that in October 2006 sold the bank building, including its hidden rowhouse, plus a handful of properties that fronted West Franklin Street in back of the bank, for a total of $1.4 million.
The buyer was WWS LLC, which sold the bank building and its back lots to the county less than two years later for $3.3 million.
‘It’s not really ready’
The first that either Joe Kroboth or Gary Rohrer knew the county was interested in buying the former bank building was in February 2008.
A year before, Rohrer had been appointed the county’s director of special projects after having been its director of public works since 1992. Also in February 2007, deputy public works director Kroboth succeeded Rohrer as director and Murray became county administrator, the county’s highest staff post.
Rohrer was a structural engineer whose job in public works and then in special projects included working with consultants to evaluate buildings before the county decided whether to buy them. He retired in 2009.
Contacted by the newspaper and asked whether he evaluated the former bank building before the county bought it, Rohrer said he had not. He said the county didn’t have a set policy to inspect buildings before buying them, and he wasn’t asked to inspect the former bank building.
Instead, Rohrer said, Murray came to his office one day in late February and asked him to come take a walk through the former bank building.
“We were probably over there 20 minutes to a half-hour max,” during which time Murray told Rohrer about the county’s interest in buying the building as part of the larger land deal, Rohrer said. Murray talked about moving some of the county’s staff from then-crowded offices on Baltimore Street into the building, Rohrer said.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to fault your plan. It’s (the building) not really ready,’” Rohrer said he told Murray.
“‘Whatever you’re going to do, you’ve got these big wide corridors. It’s a lot of wasted space here. The size of these offices, they are just not practical for use by the county. It (the building) needs a big renovation. You don’t know what’s above these ceilings and you don’t know what’s in back of these walls,’” Rohrer said he told Murray.
Rohrer said he told Murray the county ought to hire an architectural engineering firm to inspect the building before deciding whether to buy it. Such firms have more expertise in such evaluations than the county’s staff, which is busy working on other county projects, he said.
Rohrer said he didn’t hear until after retiring in 2009 that the county did hire such a firm to evaluate the former bank building — after buying the building.
Kroboth also said he was never asked to inspect the building.
Kroboth said Murray came to his office a few weeks or perhaps a month before the purchase and asked him to come for a walk through the former bank building.
Before and after
“This was before the purchase took place and he said the commissioners were thinking of purchasing it,” Kroboth said. “At the time, I said, ‘Well, can I get an architect to come and take a look at it?’ And he indicated, ‘Yes, start the process.’
“But before I was able to get the RFP (request for proposal) out, the commissioners had already voted to purchase the property,” Kroboth said.
Kroboth said he asked Murray whether he “should still go ahead with the process to hire an architectural engineer. And he (Murray) said, ‘Absolutely. We need to find out the condition of the building.’”
By email on Oct. 3, the newspaper asked Murray whether the county had inspected the building before deciding to buy it. That same day, Murray wrote back, saying, “We verified the inspection reports provided and determined it was satisfactory.”
Despite repeated attempts since Nov. 2, the newspaper couldn’t reach Murray directly or through county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher for comment for this story.
Murray did approve the newspaper’s request in mid-October for copies of reports done on the building before the purchase and after it.
The newspaper was given a copy of a September 2006 report by Triad Engineering Inc. for David Lyles, who was a principal in WWS LLC, the company that bought the bank building in October 2006. In its study, Triad reported on environmental conditions such as the removal of an underground storage tank near the building, and any environmental problems reported in the area.
The newspaper also was given a copy of BMK’s report dated February 2009.
For its study, Kroboth told BMK to examine the building’s condition in a variety of ways, ranging from a building, fire and life safety code analysis, to an air quality evaluation, to testing for insects, lead-based paint, radon and asbestos.
Among its findings, BMK said it did detect lead-based paint on some surfaces in such places as the basement and a stairwell. It said it found radon above the EPA’s recommended levels in an old basement apartment, and recommended long-term testing there.
As to asbestos, BMK said, asbestos-containing spray-applied fireproofing material was found on decking, beams, columns and other places, such as acoustical ceiling tile, grid and lights. Estimating that this work would cost $155,000, BMK said the county should abate the material and reinstall asbestos-free, spray-applied fireproofing, as required.
In addition, BMK said it found several areas of infrastructure that were in fair or good condition. But it also found unused ductwork that, it said, “creates a pathway for fire to travel from floor to floor.”
Its list of “required corrective actions” included the need to give people in the building more time to safely use stairways to reach exits. For example, BMK called on the county to build “a fire-rated vestibule at the rear of the main corridor” on the first floor, where BMK said a stairway now leads to an unprotected area and no direct exit to the outside.
Such a vestibule, as well as a recommendation to remove the wired glass panels enclosing a stair tower on the first floor at the front of the building and replace the panels with brick walls, might not be needed if the county would install a sprinkler system throughout the building, BMK said.
Kroboth said he plans to ask the commissioners to install such a sprinkler system when it resumes planning to use the building.
Murray and Barr have said the reasons why the county hasn’t yet moved into the building range from recession-era funding cuts, to the loss of a bank tenant in the county administration building, opening more space there. In addition, Murray said, Hagerstown’s proposal to build a stadium downtown opened the possibility that the county’s Baltimore Street offices would have to be demolished, creating the need to move those employees somewhere.
In the meantime, a majority of the commissioners have said they’re not worried about rushing to figure out how to use the former bank building because its three tenants paid enough rent this past year to cover the cost of utilities for the entire building. The county isn’t paying any loan interest on the building because it used a budget surplus to pay the building’s $3 million cost in cash.
Whenever the building is being readied for county use, Kroboth said he would want a sprinkler system installed because it “provides the highest level of protection for the occupants and the people who come in, and it negates the need to do some other renovations” on BMK’s list.
BMK estimated that it would cost $157,500 to install the sprinkler system.
$1.2 million earmarked for repairs
Kroboth said he doesn’t think BMK’s report has ever been presented to the commissioners. Instead, he said, they have heard brief summaries of some of the building’s needs and have set aside money to pay for them in the county’s multiyear capital improvement budget.
Currently, he said, about $1.2 million is earmarked for the building’s repairs, which include an item not on BMK’s list — fixing roof leaks, at a cost of $275,000. The remaining $950,000 would about equal BMK’s total estimate for the required corrective actions, Kroboth said.
Neither the estimate for the “required” nor the “recommended” corrective actions include the cost of building the stair tower the commissioners have been envisioning to connect the former bank building to the adjacent administration building. Kroboth said he thinks the cost has been calculated, but he couldn’t immediately find the estimate.
Asked whether the county has done any of the corrections that BMK said are necessary, Kroboth said it hasn’t yet “only because it was our intent to basically hire another architect” to draft plans for how all of the work should be done.
“That’s where the whole staffing issue comes in,” he said, referring to cutbacks in the county government’s staff as the economy has waned. “No one has the time available to sit down and write a set of proposals.”
He said he does think some lesser-cost, more expedient problems that BMK found have been corrected.
For instance, BMK said there are “several areas within the building that do not have sufficient coverage” by emergency lighting battery packs. And BMK said it found “exit signs are not installed in all the locations necessary, and there are some instances where they are incorrectly located leading occupants away from the nearest exit.”
Asked whether those had been corrected, Kroboth said he thinks so.
“It’s my understanding that those fire exit signs were relamped and that those matters were corrected,” he said.