Police Building Costs Out of Whack


The saga of Baltimore's ill-fated police headquarters -- built two decades ago at the cost of $13.6 million and now unusable because of asbestos and ventilation problems -- continues.

Nearly a year ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that the police department would abandon the costly white elephant near City Hall. Out of a half-dozen alternatives, the mayor selected the old Hecht Co. building as the preferred site for the new headquarters. Under the mayor's plan, the Howard Street department store landmark was to be recycled and renovated at a cost of $26 million and would pump new life into an area that once was Baltimore's merchandising hub.

It did not take long for the mayor's plan to run into trouble. Doubting the feasibility and cost projections, the Board of Estimates, under persistent questioning by City Comptroller Jacqueline McLean and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, first postponed and then revised an architectural analysis of the Hecht Co. building. This caution has now paid off: the architectural analysis suggests that preparing the old department store for police use would cost more than $40 million.

"I don't believe we have $40 million we can just dump into that building," says Ms. McLean. She advises the mayor to establish firm cost figures for rehabilitating the current police headquarters building. "I know the numbers are not going to be anywhere near $40 million," the comptroller says.

We urge the Schmoke administration to reconsider its police headquarters options. This city cannot afford to get involved in another white elephant that will cost taxpayers a bundle.

From the very beginning, it has been evident that the Howard Street site does not satisfy the needs of the police department.

The building is too small and would necessitate scattering functions now concentrated at headquarters among several locations downtown. It contains inadequate vehicle access. And it does not have a helicopter pad.

Certainly $40 million ought to buy more than that in today's depressed real estate market.

Equally troubling, the city has only $5 million budgeted so far for a new police headquarters. The rest would have to be financed, possibly through an industrial revenue bond. The size of that bond issue would be so large it would squeeze out other, sorely needed city projects.

A police headquarters is an important symbol for the community. It can be highly visible -- as the current building -- or not so prominent. In any event, the building has to be functional and flexible enough to satisfy both today's requirements and tomorrow's expanded or altered needs.

On all these scores, the Hecht Co. building is an inferior site.

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