Architect Pelli Joins Effort To Save Comsat Building

The interior stairwell of the Comsat building, designed by Cesar Pelli. The building's future is uncertain.
The interior stairwell of the Comsat building, designed by Cesar Pelli. The building's future is uncertain. (Maryland-national Capital Park And Planning Commission)
By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

Forty years after Cesar Pelli designed the Comsat Corp. building, a low-rise glass and aluminum structure on Interstate 270 near Route 121 in Clarksburg, the famed architect is coming to Montgomery County to join an effort to save it.

Pelli is scheduled to speak Tuesday at the conclusion of a four-day conference at Montgomery College in Rockville called by preservationists and community groups opposed to development plans that could include razing the former home of the satellite research company.

"I would like to do everything I can to save this building," Pelli said in a phone interview last week from his office in New Haven, Conn. "It's like saving one of my babies. I have a great attachment to my designs."

By midmorning on Saturday, about 40 architects, planners, residents and activists mingled around tables in a classroom at Montgomery College discussing ways to preserve the building, trees and views of the property and what else might be built on some of the land.

They also shared their impressions of the sleek complex that has become part of the local landscape.

"At first I thought it was very peculiar when I moved into the area, but now I really enjoy it," said Kendra Biddick of Clarksburg as she worked in one of the small groups, looking at topography, zoning and aerial maps of the property. "It has a stark appearance."

Marcie Stickle of Silver Spring added: "It's an iconic building. It's a gem." Nearby, Tony Pins, an architecture student at Penn State who is from Rockville, said he would spend the next few days helping devise new ideas for reuse of the complex. "It piqued my interest to come because it's one of the few buildings that's worthwhile to look at in Montgomery County," the 21-year-old said.

Executives with the owner of the Comsat property, Lcor Inc., were surprised to learn last week about the community event and that Pelli would be participating.

"So Cesar's coming to town?" said Mike Smith, a vice president at Lcor, an office and residential developer based in Berwyn, Pa. Smith said he didn't plan to go because the meeting's organizer -- Montgomery Preservation Inc., a nonprofit group that works to preserve historic sites -- had "no consultation with us and no outreach -- they never approached us to work with them and others."

Smith said he's "not sure" whether his company will tear down the Comsat building, as it is still planning for the site.

Lcor bought the approximately 500,000-square-foot Comsat building and 200 acres of grassy hills that surround it in 1997. It has said it wants to turn the site into 1,500 apartments and townhouses, up to 1 million square feet of offices and about 150,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. The county's master plan also calls for a light rail stop to come through the property eventually.

Lockheed Martin Corp., which bought Comsat in 2000 and later sold it, has a lease on the building until 2007. The company uses about half of the space for its employees and subcontractors, according to Lcor executives, and the rest of the building is empty.

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