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Raleigh City Council fights over Lightner Public Safety Center

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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.

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