Raleigh City Council fights over Lightner Public Safety Center

Call the cops

| February 24, 2010

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At first, it was just the timing and the fact that it was attached to a property tax increase when people could least afford it. But the longer the plan for the proposed Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center in Raleigh lies on the table, the more questions are being asked about it by a trio of City Council members—and they're not getting good answers from the project's proponents, including Mayor Charles Meeker.

The questions are:

  1. Does it make sense, in an age of backpack bombs and crazy people flying their planes into government buildings, to put all of the city's top police, fire and emergency operations officials, and all of their communications equipment, in a single high-rise?

  2. If it does make sense, should the first two floors be open to the public with no screening—and a café?

  3. Should the emergency operations and IT functions, which require a "hardened" structure with very limited public access, be in a separate building from the police and fire functions, which require less hardening and which must be at least reasonably accessible to the public?

  4. Does putting the small emergency operations space (about 34,000 square feet) atop the rest of the 305,000-square-foot structure require hardening all of it at substantial additional cost?

  5. What drove the estimated cost from an initial $88 million-$100 million (as of the end of 2007) to $226 million in February 2008?

  6. The current estimate of $205 million includes a contingency reserve of just $4 million, while the earlier $226 million estimate included a $42 million contingency. So, contrary to Meeker's and City Manager Russell Allen's assertions, hasn't the estimated cost actually gone up, not down, even in a "down" market for construction projects?

  7. Is the location itself well considered? Or should the south-facing side of historic Nash Square be used for something attractive—a hotel, say, or a residential building with some shops—instead of a public safety building that law-abiding folks, café or no café, will naturally avoid?

For more than a month, the three dissident council members—Democrats Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson and independent Bonner Gaylord—broached these issues softly, not wanting a public bloodletting.

But with Meeker pushing hard for approval, and pushing their objections aside, Gaylord let loose at last week's meeting with a sweeping denunciation of the project and the process that brought it this far. Speaking for his colleagues, he called the Lightner center the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time—a facility marred by internal contradictions and "ostentatious" frills (a two-story emergency communications auditorium on the 14th floor, with stadium seating and a "jumbotron").

The "34,000 square feet of tail," Gaylord said, "wagged the 305,000-square-foot dog, and we ended up with a phenomenal, yet phenomenally expensive structure."

(Gaylord, a licensed contractor and general manager at North Hills, and architects Crowder and Stephenson were at pains to compliment the "gorgeous" building design. It wasn't the architects' fault that the job they were given was fundamentally flawed, the trio said.)

The three have called for a "Plan B," which would delay construction of a new police and fire administration facility for cost reasons and entail studying alternative sites. A new emergency operations building would go ahead on another downtown site that isn't as visible and which can be fully secured.

Along with Councilor John Odom, who opposes the project without a public referendum, they have the council deadlocked 4-4. Nonetheless, Meeker is calling for a vote March 2—the fifth time he's listed it on the agenda.

This week, Stephenson was circulating information about Seattle's new emergency center, an out-of-the-way, 30,000-square-foot structure that's half-underground and hidden from public view by a fire station. An article about it in an architectural and engineering magazine notes favorably that "it's not a place for dropping in" and if you don't know where it is, good.

In a 2008 document, "Emergency Operations Center—Planning & Design," Stephenson noted, the U.S. Department of Defense says such facilities "should not be located in a high-rise building or next to a high-rise building that can collapse." Earlier, he and his colleagues pointed to the city's own threat assessment from '08, which termed the Lightner building vulnerable to a catastrophic attack.

"You couldn't be more off-base," an irritated Meeker shot back at Gaylord on Tuesday. Meeker repeated his contention that centralizing police, fire and emergency functions makes sense for a big city, and that for their protection police and fire officials deserve to be in a hardened building, too.

"That's the reason that having the one facility, that has one point of entrance, is the right way to handle it," Meeker said derisively. He added, "You can tell from the tone my voice that I feel strongly about it."

Feeling strongly, though, doesn't address the substantive concerns being raised about a building the critics have dubbed "the Taj Mahal"—or in some cases, "the Badge Mahal." And the case for it got weaker Thursday when the crazy guy flew into the IRS high-rise in Austin, Texas.

On one point, Gaylord—new to the council this year—is undoubtedly correct. The only public hearing ever conducted on this project was limited to the question of how to finance it, not what it should be or where. No one from the public attended.

Otherwise, in the five years since the plan was hatched in City Hall, it's moved relentlessly from the drawing board to a sparkling design, without any serious public vetting.

Until now—which seems like as good a time as any to start one.

Corrections (Feb. 24, 2010): The name of the 2008 document was incorrect. Also, an editing error extended a quote by Russ Stephenson.

Comments (4)

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Bob,

I didn't mean to suggest that it would have been an easy thing to have opposed this project earlier, only that Raleigh voters want their council people to show more courage. No matter what one's opinion of Meeker is and regardless of whether this whole process was shepherded through by him in maybe a less than completely open manner, he is still the mayor and it looks to me as if he were blindsided. As someone who does not consider him an ally and has opposed a number of his initiatives, I still am very unhappy about that.

And I think the people of Raleigh are going to feel the same way.

Thanks for the clarification.

Mitchell Hazouri

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Posted by Mitchell hazouri on 03/03/2010 at 3:31 PM

Mitch: The process by which a project like this inches forward over the years, from "Let's study it, you're not committing to anything" to "Let's bring in a consultant to study it some more" to -- 25 steps later -- "Here's the design, and by the way, it's too late to change anything" should be the subject of a public administration text. But to answer your question to the best of my knowledge, Crowder did question it in 2008, and I reported that in the course of an article about the onset of tough economic times for the city: http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A259877

Crowder's suggestion that it might save a lot of money to build the new facilities in the Hillsborough Street "hole in the ground" -- avoiding the need to move the cops out of their current HQ so it could be torn down and the Lightner tower erected on its site -- was dismissed by the mayor as too late in the process already. (See how this works? You said it was OK to study the project, so we spent money studying it, and now you have to go along because we spent money.) After which more money was spent.

I'm told, but haven't read the minutes myself, that Rodger Koopman, when he was on Council in 2009, raised basic questions about putting all the public safety functions in one tower, and was instructed by the mayor to hold his questions until the design was ready for review -- which is where it stands today.

Not incidentally, $22 million is thrown around as the amount already spent and therefore lost if Lightner is dropped. In fact, at least half that money was spent buying two buildings that the city now owns and in which the police department will shortly be housed. That money's not lost; whether the money spent renovating the two buildings is or isn't depends, I guess, on how long the police are in them.

I said in a blog post yesterday that I don't know if the Lightner plan is preferable to a Plan B, because the mayor and the manager refuse to study a Plan B. I do think good questions were being asked about Lightner, and they haven't been answered. You can read it here: http://www.indyweekblogs.com/citizen/2010/03/lightner-its-a-loser-plan-b/

My bunch is coming to Mitch's tonight for dinner -- see you there?

Bob

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Posted by Bob Geary, Indy Staff Writer on 03/03/2010 at 2:39 PM

Bob,

Do you have any record of Stephenson or Crowder expressing opposition to any aspect of this project at any time in the years before Bonner Gaylord came to the council? Did you express concerns about this building in any of your columns? If not, then I'll have to go along with Baldwin's assessment Tuesday that waiting all of this time to bring up major concerns was just the wrong thing to do.

Gaylord fired the first shot across the bow (of what is now apparently a sinking ship)during, I believe, his first council meeting. That's the first time I was aware of such opposition. Fill me in if I missed something along the way to this logjam.

If Crowder and Stephenson have acquiesced and remained mute during the planning of this project hasn't that acquiscence cost us millions? If they waited to speak out only when there were apparently four negative votes on the council, who were they afraid of?

It looks like Charles did exactly the right thing. Let them figure it out and move forward from there. I think that's called putting the ball in their court.

Mitchell Hazouri

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Posted by Mitchell hazouri on 03/03/2010 at 1:28 PM

Thanks for the best article yet on this ill-conceived project. What a bad mix of functions and security levels under one roof!

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Posted by LocalLinda on 03/01/2010 at 3:28 PM
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