More than a year ago, the Raleigh City Council split over the construction of a new public safety center in downtown Raleigh. Although the project was never formally shelved, compromise has eluded council members during the intervening months.
As election season approaches for the entire city council, the public safety center debate could play a political role. The election is Oct. 11.
The proposed Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center, which would house police, fire, emergency management and other services in a high-rise building, attracted controversy for its cost, location and design.
The council likely won’t address the Lightner proposal before this year’s elections.
“There have been discussions that have privately taken place among some councilors in an effort to try to reach a compromise,” said Councilor-At-Large Mary-Ann Baldwin. “All have failed. This issue will have to be decided by the next council.”
Stephenson partially blames the economy for gridlock.
“There’s general agreement that the project in some form needs to go forward but that it’s best to put the discussion on hold until the economy improves and we have a better sense of funding and our priorities at the time,” he said.
Baldwin predicts the Lightner Center will be an election issue; Mayor Charles Meeker wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t know if it will be an issue,” he said. “Only if someone wants to make it an issue.”
Meeker, who vouched for the Lightner Center, said the 911 call center at 222 W. Hargett St. needs a solution.
“It’s at capacity and needs more space,” he said. “The 911 call center is essential. It’s not essential to have police and fire in the same space.”
Councilors who voted against moving forward with construction — Russ Stephenson (at-large), Bonner Gaylord (District E), Thomas Crowder (District D) and John Odom (District B) — pointed to research suggesting that placing all emergency services headquarters in one building in a densely populated area posed a security risk.
They also expressed concern about the open-access design of the lower floors, which could make attack easier.
When the project’s $205 million cost — significantly more than expected — was announced at the beginning of 2010, opposing councilors had another reason to balk.
But council members in favor of Lightner cited low interest rates and construction costs that, had the project been bid out, could have brought the cost down to as much 20 percent under budget.
“We could have saved taxpayer dollars,” said Baldwin, a Lightner supporter. “It was a missed opportunity.”
Then-councilor James West (District C) and Nancy McFarlane (District A) also supported the project, asserting the need to streamline public safety services.
Their viewpoint was supported by a precedent study, released about three weeks after the council vote, examining new public safety centers in other cities. The consultant authors of the study found “the current design of the Lightner Public Safety Center is consistent with best practices found in many cities and counties across the United States and would represent the state-of-the art for this type of facility in terms of operational efficiency, safety for the public safety operations and employees, and service to the public.”
Facilities originally slated to be housed in the Lightner Public Safety Center are spread throughout the city. Click on the icons to find out what's where.
Raleigh Police Chief Harry Dolan supports the project, saying the design will accommodate growth as the city’s population increases.
“Why I’m so excited by the public safety center is that it’s a design for now and in the future,” he said.
A few weeks after the deadlocked vote, police headquarters moved from its downtown McDowell Street premises to an office building on Six Forks Road in North Raleigh. The city purchased and retrofitted this interim space for $10 million as part of the project plan.
Police headquarters remains on Six Forks, where Chief Dolan is content — for now.
“The building is secure enough,” he said. “We’ll make this work. The situation now is that it’s sustainable in the short term.”
Stephenson places different emphases on the services intended to occupy Lightner.
“In the long term, when we can afford it, I’d rather have the police and fire headquarters downtown,” he said. “What we need to do, dealing with economic realities and citywide priorities, is improve the quality of police and fire response for day-to-day quality and safety. That’s not connected to whether we have police and fire located in a new office building downtown.”
He said other Lightner-slated services — information technology, the emergency operation center, the 911 call center, and a traffic control center — have more pressing needs.
“Those services are in facilities that are out of date,” Stephenson said. “Meanwhile, both the police and fire headquarters are in not new but better-quality workspaces than those folks have been in many years.”