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Police headquarters addition could mean new face


The 11-story police department headquarters that Baltimore built downtown in the early 1970s has been notorious for its mechanical defects, but that is not the only area where it failed.

As seen from the skyline on the edge of the municipal district, the building at 601 E. Fayette St. looks more like a commercial office tower than the command center for the department whose officers are sworn to protect the citizens of Baltimore.

With its reflective glass windows and polished granite surface, it is also an austere fortress that appears cut off from the city. In short, it sends all the wrong messages about the police department.

Now Baltimore has a chance to counter some of that building's negatives -- at a time when the Schmoke administration is looking for ways to convey a more positive image about the police force.

As part of a long-awaited effort to correct the mechanical defects in the 1973 building, the city plans to construct a five-story, 100,000-square-foot addition. The site is an irregularly shaped parcel bounded by Fayette, President and Baltimore streets and the eastern edge of the existing police headquarters -- a strategic location where the central business district meets the neighborhoods.

Seen by thousands of people a day who drive along the Jones Falls Expressway, the addition could be a new face for the police department -- literally reaching out to the community and showing that the police force is expanding its presence. Its appearance could reinforce the city's emphasis on community policing.

Whether any of those goals are realized depends in large part on the work of the architects, a team headed by Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) of Washington and RCG Inc. of Baltimore. They are still grappling with decisions about what the building will look like -- and what messages it will send.

HOK principal James Kessler said the design team wants to create "an important civic building" that provides a gateway to downtown while conveying its function as as "an arm of justice.

"The symbolic role of the police department in the city is something that is very serious and should not have a frivolous expression," he said. "We're trying to strike the right balance. . . . We also have some direction from the city to be modest in our approach."

Construction is due to begin in October and be complete by late 1996. Mr. Kessler said the addition will be separated from the older building by a glass and metal bridge and will be deliberately different in appearance. Besides constructing the $10 million addition, the city will spend about $22 million to renovate the existing 280,000-square-foot headquarters by mid-1997.

To show where they are headed, Mr. Kessler and his associates last week presented some concept sketches to Baltimore's Architectural Review Board. They also released computer-generated drawings that show the proposed configuration, but not the actual exterior design.

In their presentation, the designers said the addition will become the new public entrance to the police complex and will house the departments that interact most closely with the public. The older building's Fayette Street entrance, with its large murals in the lobby, will be for employees only, they explained.

The addition's north and south walls would most likely follow the city street grid and line up with other buildings on Fayette and Baltimore streets. But there will probably be a curved wall along the east side that follows President Street and helps soften the building, the architects said.

The designers suggested that the building have a colonnade and clear glass windows (not reflective) at street level to indicate that it is accessible and welcoming. They also talked about creating a plaza on the Fayette Street side, possibly with a monument to officers who have died in the line of duty.

These are promising ideas that show the architects don't want to repeat the mistakes made in the 1970s. Now they should be encouraged to do even more to give the addition a reassuring and distinctive presence above the first floor.

Public safety is the one subject on just about everyone's mind these days. The city's police headquarters should not look like a speculative office tower, or another banal government complex.

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