At the West Baltimore police station where fed-up residents confronted police last April, local business leaders see room for a playground and a food truck. What is currently a locked-down building with mirrored windows soon will offer public space for community programs.
The plans are part of a $2.4 million project poised to get underway after expected approval by the Board of Estimates this week, said a group led by former Under Armour executive Scott Plank and regional Wells Fargo president Andrew Bertamini.
Built in the 1950s, the Western District station is one of the most dilapidated of the city's nine police stations. Five officers assigned to the district were among the six charged in the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray, which prompted several nights of protests outside the station.
Already a fortress-like building, police placed jersey walls around it — some of which remain today — and erected a fence around the parking lot.
Changes to the facade shown in an artist's rendering, however, will make the building look more like a library.
"Fundamentally, our police stations should serve their most important customer — the residents of Baltimore," Plank, who runs the Baltimore development company War Horse, said in a statement. "With an updated floor plan, which includes safe public spaces and a community reflection garden, the Western District can invite the community into their 'house' to build positive non-enforcement interactions while protecting the security and discretion of the officers."
Residents passing by the station, which is surrounded by rowhouses in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, on a drizzly Monday afternoon said they thought the project was worthwhile.
"We need something," said Kevin Judkins, 48. "I'm all for it if it can enhance the neighborhood."
Donnell Wells, 18, who was grabbing food at a nearby carryout with his uncle, said he hoped the community space could "help keep kids out of trouble."
Inez Robb, president of the Western District Police Community Relations Council, praised the effort.
"So many people are coming together to help empower residents and rebuild community-police relations," Robb said in a statement. "It is just what the community needs moving forward to a more equitable Baltimore."
Others on social media lamented that such substantial funding was going toward a police building.
"Building new police stations and jails faster than they're building schools," the activist Kwame Rose wrote on Twitter.
Funding for the project comes primarily from the JS Plank and DM DiCarlo Family Foundation, the Baltimore Ravens, Under Armour, Wells Fargo, the Warnock Foundation, Maggie and Reed Cordish, BGE, St. Agnes Hospital, Comcast and the Abell Foundation.
In a news release, the businesses said they want to see the police station become "a cornerstone for community empowerment and positive social interaction between officers and residents on the west side."
Tisha Edwards, the former interim city schools CEO, who now works with War Horse, said the project was in the planning stages prior to the unrest that followed Gray's death, which prompted the business leaders to rethink and strengthen the project's community aspects, she said.
The Western District upgrade will occur within the existing footprint of the 60-year-old police station. The intent is to duplicate the improvements at other run-down police districts.
The plan "needed to be reasonable. It's a very old building, and if you try to do everything in the building and start from scratch, it's too hard to raise the money," Edwards said. "Most importantly, we want this police station to be a prototype — we want to get others done too."
Edwards said the project is "shovel-ready" following $300,000 in upgrades performed by the city, including asbestos removal, renovated flooring and HVAC upgrades. It would be completed in about six months.
The improvements include:
•Secure locker rooms and "updated restrooms that reflect gender diversity;"
•Dedicated conference rooms to conduct interviews and upgraded training space and equipment;
•Public space for "flexible community programming," including public parking spaces.
•Outdoor seating, free Wi-Fi access and a safe play area in front of the station for neighborhood use.
Ganesha Martin, the chief of external affairs for the Baltimore Police Department, said she visited a police station in Chicago where neighborhood groups used space for events that had nothing to do with police. She said she hopes residents will see the new building that way, from police youth programs to "grandma's knitting club."
"It's just a stark difference," Martin said. "It will stand as a beacon and really show, I hope, our heart and what we're trying to do."
For police officers, officials hope the improvements will boost morale and lead to better interactions with the public. Planners considered everything from raising flagpoles to make the station more visible from afar to widening officers' lockers.
"We're hoping that from the police station, you can build out in concentric circles and encourage more investment in the community," Martin said.
The city's police districts once had functioning courtrooms, judges' chambers, press rooms and space for the community. The courtrooms were moved out in the 1970s, and districts absorbed new responsibilities that often didn't conform to the original building layouts.
Further isolating the stations from the community, several closed their lobbies to public access after deciding to use them for other purposes, like storage.
The Northern District has perhaps the most state-of-the-art police station, built in 2000 on Cold Spring Lane just off Interstate 83. In recent years, outside donations helped fix up the Southeastern District station and reopen the lobby of the Northwestern District station.
Plank was involved in the Southeastern District project and with additional upgrades at the Northern District station, and also has opened a wellness center at a Locust Point school and funded projects with the Fire Department.
Edwards said the business leaders hope the police station projects will serve as a "call to action" to spur other projects.
"Hopefully, we're getting to a point where other businesses, other foundations join the effort," she said. "We're excited about the facility, but also excited about the conversations and relationships that have developed as a result of this process."