For almost 100 years, a Navy research lab worked on secret projects just across the Severn River from the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The David Taylor Research Center opened in 1903, and at its peak in the 1960s employed more than 1,400 engineers, metallurgists, chemists and others working to make the ships and subs smarter, faster and quieter. Then came the end of the Cold War, and in 1999 the Pentagon decided it didn’t need the centers’ aging labs and warehouses.

Jobs were cut. Research ended, and ongoing work moved to other labs until just one program remained: the Joint Spectrum Center, or JSC. The center advances military uses of electromagnetic radiation, everything from microwaves to infrared, X-ray and radio signals. Plans then called for it to move 20 miles north to Fort Meade.

Except it didn’t move.

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When a frustrated member of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission wrote to object, a Pentagon official explained that the center had signed a 25-year, rent-free lease. It would stay right where it was.

Ever since, JSC has been an immovable obstacle, blocking a redevelopment vision originally valued at $250 million. The plan would have created a mix of office and retail space just outside the city limits where 2,000 people would work, all linked to downtown by ferries and water taxis.

That, finally, could be about to change.

Language added to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland requires the Defense Department to move the Joint Spectrum Center and provides $5 million to make it happen.

If the amendment survives negotiations with the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, which passed a radically different defense spending bill, the result could remake greater Annapolis into a city straddling the Severn for the first time in its 300-plus-year history.

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“I’m standing here looking at it right now, across the river from the Annapolis Sailing School,” County Executive Steuart Pittman said in an interview. “We sailed right by it today. And you know, it’s a crumbling dump. So why not fix it up and turn it into something that people can enjoy the Chesapeake Bay from?”

Nineteen years ago, that was the plan, or at least the one publicly touted. Anne Arundel County agreed to take over the site once it was declared surplus. Recognizing the scale of the work needed to repurpose a collection of 80 dilapidated buildings with failing infrastructure, the county called for proposals from private developers.

It picked Annapolis Partners, created by Naval Academy graduates Maurice Tose and Ron McDonald. The county turned over the property at no cost, with just one major condition — that the partners follow through on their 10-year plan.

And their plan was ambitious, one that McDonald called the largest waterfront development in the history of Annapolis.

A site plan approved in 2004 called for 500,000 square feet of office space, a 100-room hotel, a parking garage and spaces for 2,000 vehicles plus waterfront restaurants and shops. The developers wanted to upgrade stormwater controls, landscape much of the concrete surface of the facility, and replace some of the bulkheaded shoreline with plants designed to better deal with what is now called sea-level rise.

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A boardwalk was to line much of the waterfront, overlooking the Naval Academy and nearby Annapolis. The three largest buildings would be renovated, centered on two Navy docks that could be 10 feet deeper than the relatively shallow Annapolis harbor.

Tose declined to comment on the project except to say that it is still active. Yet he has been pushing for the move of the Joint Spectrum Center for years, speaking to successive county administrations and members of Congress.

In June 2022, Pittman and Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley sent a letter urging Congress to make the move happen, saying it was the only way to recover the jobs lost when David Taylor shut down.

“It’s in the interest of national defense, environmental protection, and economic development for the BRAC Commission’s recommendation to be fully implemented, and for the JSC to move its operations to Fort Meade, Maryland with its parent command, the Defense Information Systems Agency, in the Fiscal Year 2023 legislative cycle,” they wrote.

A year later, the Caucus of African American Leaders joined the push, noting that Tose and McDonald, who are both Black, are minority business owners trying to overcome a unique challenge.

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“Unfortunately, decisions made 25 years ago allowed a sensitive military command to remain on the site despite the closure of the base, creating an untenable situation and unfair burden on our community that no other BRAC redevelopment team in the United States has faced and that no private citizen should have to carry,” leaders of the influential civil rights advocacy group wrote.

If the Senate amendment passes — and it’s so obscure there’s no reason to assume it will not — JSC will have to move. Roughly 190 federal and contract employees work there under the command of an Air Force colonel.

It could move to Fort Meade, where space has been reserved since a proposal to move DISA to Nebraska was shelved in 2014.

What’s clear is that there has always been a vested interest in keeping the research agency in Annapolis.

The center is a field office of the Defense Spectrum Organization, which itself is within DISA.

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It provides technical support for the 11 U.S. combat commands that oversee military operations in specific areas such as a geographic location or special operations. It helps those commanders to control battlefields with communications, weapons systems and jamming signals.

Over the past 20 years, that work has become more important with the rise of improved smart weapons technology. In fiscal year 2022, it had an annual budget of $44 million, up $20 million from a decade earlier.

In a questionnaire submitted to the Senate before confirmation hearings, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next chairman of the joint chiefs said this kind of work is more important than ever.

It has been a lucrative source of work for the defense industry. In 2006, ITT Corp. won a contract worth as much as $545 million to support Joint Spectrum Center.

In the same 2005 letter that cited a 25-year, rent-free lease with the county, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Carla K. Coulson wrote that the proximity to ITT Corp’s Annapolis offices was a major reason for staying put. The company’s main area location is now located near Fort Meade.

The requirement to move does not have a deadline. A spokesperson for DISA declined to comment on the potential move, saying it is still part of pending legislation.

A spokesperson for Pittman, the county executive, said he was unaware that the Pentagon cited a lease as part of its reason for refusing to move JSC.

If Annapolis Partners can restart its project, its decades-old site plan is still valid, according to a spokesperson for the county planning and zoning office. It exists only in hard copy, and a request to review it this week was the first time it had been pulled from storage in years, a spokesperson said.

The developer would have to apply for building and grading permits and comply with laws that weren’t around in 2004, meeting new standards for forest conservation, stormwater management and critical areas along the shore. Civilian roads that supported the David Taylor workforce would have to comply with the updated adequate public facilities laws. An easement for using Navy-owned roads would also be required.

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Times have changed, and the project probably will, too.

The first phase included building a hilltop headquarters for Tose’s old company, TeleCommunication Systems Inc. Launched after he returned to Annapolis and used a Small Business Administration loan, TCS developed encrypted short message system technology that was a precursor to today’s text apps.

Shareholders approved its sale in 2015 in a deal worth $430 million. The new owners moved most of its operations out of Annapolis, so there is no longer any guaranteed first tenant.

The commercial real estate market is also different than it was in 2004, with demand suppressed because of remote work.

If demand for a tech city on the Severn has dimmed, though, there are greater opportunities for tourism.

A proposal to create a Chesapeake Bay national park — a network of environmental and cultural sites centered on Annapolis — is working its way through Congress. The city is exploring a ferry system of its own, and a group of economic development agencies around the bay are collaborating on their own water transit plan.

Today, many of the concrete and steel buildings are covered in vines and pocked with broken windows, lonely witness to a rich legacy of innovation and technology.

It’s the spot where steam engineering for coal-fired battleships was improved, and secret technologies were developed to make submarine propellers quieter — or replace them altogether with propulsion systems using magnetic fields. The first Naval Air Station was located nearby.

And then there is that hill. It is the site of an Army fort, one of four built to protect Annapolis before the War of 1812. What’s left was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Its name fits the long, twisted path toward a rebirth of the shoreline across from Annapolis.

Fort Nonsense.

“Who knows what they’ll come up with,” Pittman said. “But I don’t think it should be what it is now, which is a mostly vacant defense facility that everybody knows is in the process of closing and they can’t seem to finish the job.”

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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