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Inside City Hall: Facelift for an ugly duckling

The Benton Building will get a good scrub down, but not until next year. Can the leaking limestone hold out that long?

Above: Putting the ugh into ugly: The Benton Building on the south side of the War Memorial Plaza.

The Board of Estimates yesterday approved $1.23 million in capital funds to scrub down the reigning champion of maintenance-challenged municipal buildings in Baltimore.

The Charles L. Benton Jr. Building, a forlorn-looking box that houses about 1,200 city workers, will get a cleaning, with repairs done on its discolored and damaged limestone walls.

But don’t expect the wash and buff to happen anytime soon.

The city first must write specs for the work and bid it out to private contractors, Steve Sharkey, director of the Department of General Services, says.

The months needed to execute a bid – plus the time it takes for a prospective awardee to undergo review by the Minority and Women’s Business Opportunity Office and approval by the Board of Estimates – makes spring 2015 the most likely starting date.

The Price of Delay

Let’s hope the building makes it until then.

In a note to the BOE, General Services warned that rainwater is infiltrating the building. “Without prompt action, the exterior stone wall will deteriorate to such a point that the entire surface will have to be replaced.”

That could result in the kind of unbudgeted expense (if totally anticipated problem, see above) that the city now faces with last month’s collapse of 26th Street onto a CSX rail line.

Residents had complained to City Hall about the instability and surface cracks along 26th Street long before a retaining wall holding up the street tumbled down after heavy rains.

At yesterday’s BOE, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other board members were told that restoring 26th Street is expected to cost a whopping $18.56 million.

That includes replacing the fallen retaining wall between the railroad and street, which yesterday was priced at an extraordinary $10.6 million – enough to rehabilitate a dozen youth recreation centers.

A Problem Child Grown Old

The Benton Building has been a problem child since it was converted from a parking garage into office space, with additional floors built above it. The building was opened in 1988.

The heating and ventilation system is erratic at best, while rodent infestation is a constant nuisance. When an employee refers to a mouse in some departments, she isn’t talking computerese.

Emblematic of Benton’s woes are the limestone panels attached to the building’s steel frame. They have not just undergone the grimy discoloration suggestive of poor installation, but some of them are cracking and others are spalling (flaking and peeling). In either case, they are letting in water.

The worst deterioration is on the first-floor exterior, from waist-level down, due to an unfortunate combination of cleaning fluids and urination. “The stone here will be replaced with granite to prevent further deterioration from cleaning products and urine,” Sharkey said.

All of the upper-floor panels need to be cleaned, inspected and, in many cases, repaired. Once fixed, a protective coating will be applied to prevent further degradation, according to Sharkey.

A Bum Beam at the Courthouse

The last time the building underwent a major renovation to improve the fifth and seventh floors for the city Department of Transportation, the budget doubled to more than $2.5 million. That included funds for a new security system to combat theft.

At yesterday’s meeting, the board was also told of another instance of failing infrastructure. A beam in the basement that helps support the Baltimore City Courthouse East Building has been failing.

Without repairs to the damaged beam, the exterior south wall of the courthouse is expected to develop cracks, General Services reported. The cracks, in turn, “would damage windows and cause exterior stone panels to break off,” placing in potential jeopardy pedestrians a block west of yesterday’s board meeting at City Hall.

The panel allocated $180,000 for repairs without comment.

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