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Annapolis landmark Johnson’s Building hosts property owners’ angst

ANNAPOLIS  — The Johnson’s Building, a 158-year-old landmark pinning State Circle to Maryland Avenue, has sat vacant for nearly three years now, but the storefront is still giving window-shoppers an eyeful.

Almost every inch of the glass is papered in propaganda, blasting city government on its strict building code for renovations and warning other property owners not to apply for a permit without first doing their research.

Bold fire-engine colored diagrams and charts diagnosing supposed lapses in judgment are the handiwork of Art Held, who co-owns the property with his wife, Jean Johnson Held. She inherited Johnson’s On the Avenue, a legendary Annapolis haberdashery, from her father in 1993.

Held has waged a one-man battle with the city over the building code requirement that he install fire suppression sprinklers, and he’s not about to pipe down anytime soon — not even after some other downtowners have suggested his signs are a tad melancholy for Annapolis visitors.

“People say you can’t fight City Hall,” Held said, “but you get to a point where you can’t give in to City Hall. Otherwise, you’re going to leave your wallet on their step.”

In principle, Held says this is about how a “smart code” that the state adopted in 2001, known as the International Existing Building Code, has been virtually ignored by the city. The IEBC was crafted to encourage developers to renovate old buildings that would otherwise be so expensive to update that the only prudent alternative would be to tear them down.

City leaders, on the other hand, say they’ve never been out of step with the code, nor have they avoided it. In fact, they adopted an updated version of the model code in November, with a few of their own amendments.

Mayor Josh Cohen said it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Though tough electrical and sprinkler codes could appear as simply more red tape, he won’t relent on matters that involve public safety and integrity of the Historic District.

Fires have scorched a number of prominent downtown buildings, most recently The Smoke Shop just a few doors down from the Johnson’s Building.

“Knock on wood, we’re lucky we haven’t had a fire take out a whole block,” Cohen said. “We would be sticking our head in the sand if we weren’t acknowledging that risk.”

In the past three years, Held has come close to securing a tenant for the ground-level Johnson’s On the Avenue store on two separate occasions. Both times, the deals fell through because of the projected costs for the renovations.

The first opportunity was with PEPCO. The electric utility company wanted to expand its lobbying office in the building and agreed to pay for rent, insurance, taxes and the cost of improvements over 10 years. City officials told the group it would have to not only install sprinklers for its space, but for the entire building, including the second floor. Five other lobbyists have had offices there for more than two decades.

Held guessed that the work on wheelchair accessibility, electrical, mechanical, plumbing and fire safety upgrades would have skyrocketed to $250,000 or more.

Rusty Romo, the owner of Harry Browne’s Restaurant next door, later considered expanding his business with a wine shop into Johnson’s. But the same sort of objection squelched that deal, too.

“Once they came back in our case with stuff that was outside of the retail space, (PEPCO) was like, ‘Forget about it,’” Held said.

Mark Petrauskas, an assistant attorney general to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said the state’s rehab code relaxes some policies for old buildings, but Annapolis and other jurisdictions have the right to make changes to the law.

“But they may lose some of the carrots put in these statutes,” he said.

The statewide code, overseen by the Maryland Rehabilitation Building Program, sets minimum requirements for rehabilitation projects.

Local jurisdictions adopting an amendment under the code can lose eligibility for some sources of state funding and for the Department of Transportation’s transportation enhancement programs.

As far as city officials know, however, they haven’t been in jeopardy of losing any funding for their amendments.

And depending on whom is asked, it remains unclear whether the city’s amendments to the model code are actually that much tougher.

Lt. John Bowes, city Fire Department spokesman, said there are so many variables that figure into such decisions — a building’s structure and the planned renovation, for instance — that it’s difficult to say what causes the cost to rack up.

After doing a cursory search of Held’s original permit for the sprinklers back in 2008, which has since expired, Bowes said he didn’t think any unique city requirement had come into play.

“But that’s an assumption – not a fact,” he said.

Alan Hyatt, an Annapolis lawyer, participated in the November code update on behalf of a number of clients. He believes a handful of architects have had running battles with the city over the sprinkler requirement.

“I think the ordinance goes a long way to resolve these types of issues,” Hyatt said. “(City officials) now realize that there’s flexibility in the code that states that if you can’t comply with the code due to practical difficulties, the city can grant modifications in individual cases, provided that there’s no jeopardy to health and safety.”

As for now, Held hasn’t found a tenant willing to invest in the pricey renovations. He envisions future window-scapes, further detailing his dissatisfaction with the system.

And as for what the mayor thinks about the impression Held’s window signs leave with the public?

“I haven’t seen them,” Cohen said.