Police: Building expansion needed

Published 11:27 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Less than two and a half years after a new police headquarters building opened in downtown, the city says it already is bursting at the seams and needs to be expanded.

Police Chief Thomas Bennett is requesting $1.8 million to add about 10,000 square feet on the west side of the building, which currently is a parking lot for employees there.

“We do not have enough space, particularly storage space,” said Bennett, who still worked in another jurisdiction when the building was designed.

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He showed pictures of packed record and evidence storage rooms in city hall, across the street from headquarters. Many records have to be kept for as little as 75 years by law, he said — in some cases, records must be kept indefinitely.

“We’ve purged all the files we possibly can,” he said.

The proposal was part of a presentation of the capital improvements plan to City Council on Wednesday evening. Council voted to schedule a public hearing on the plan for Feb. 1.

The request for money for a police headquarters addition was tacked on after the Planning Commission approved it last month.

The request makes predictions nearly five years old come true.

In July 2007, when the building still was nothing but drawings on paper, the Historic Landmarks Commission expressed concern about the location and amount of space in the building. The group said the design lacked foresight.

“I think most of us feel like this is, perhaps, a mistake,” Merritt Draper, Holy Neck representative on the commission, said in 2007.

Even City Council members and officials knew at the time that the building would not accommodate future needs.

“The thinking is that the space we’re doing now … will accommodate the immediate needs,” Capital Programs and Buildings Director Gerry Jones said at the time.

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” Councilman Curtis Milteer said then.

On Wednesday, Bennett said the department would use parking on the other side of Spring Street to make up for the spaces that would be lost to the addition. He said he is exploring options to transfer documents to electronic storage, but that’s an expensive and time-consuming process.

Also during the presentation, city leaders defended a recommendation to use $3 million to remodel the old Robertson Elementary School to become a community center.

Some on the Planning Commission had suggested the money might be better used in other, more populated areas of the city and pointed out that Whaleyville already has a community center.

However, Parks and Recreation Director Lakita Frazier said that facility is inadequate for a true recreation center and mostly serves only as rental space for small parties.

“It’s very inadequate,” she said. “This new facility will be fully accessible. Citizens of this entire city will definitely benefit.”

Jones said the building would get modest renovations to the exterior, several additions and other improvements. In the end, he said, it would be comparable to the East Suffolk Recreation Center, but at half the cost because that facility had more historical elements and required more site work. The renovated Robertson also could serve as an emergency shelter, he said.

The entire capital improvements plan includes $705 million in projects planned for the next 10 years, including roughly $53 million in projects in the first year.