Price of new Raleigh building questioned

December 4, 2009 12:26:52 PM PST
Most agree that Raleigh's police and fire departments need more space and more modern facilities, and the city is working on a state of the art public safety building with a $205m price tag.

The design for the 17-story Clarence Lightner Public Safety Center is impressive, but digging into the blueprints, some wonder if it's a little too impressive.

"I was blown away," offered Freshman Raleigh City Council Member Bonner Gaylord.

When Gaylord is not attending council meetings, his other job is licensed general contractor. So he has some knowledge when he says he found extravagances in the building design that are driving up the price.

"I just don't see how this is an efficient use of public resources," said Gaylord. "It seems to me we've designed the Taj Mahal."

At $205 million, the Lightner building comes in at $672 per square foot. That's almost double the cost of other recent construction projects in Raleigh. For example, the Green Square development is costing just under $308 per square foot. The Wake County Criminal Justice Center has a price tag of $380, and the Raleigh Convention Center cost $440.

By its nature, a public safety building has special needs that drive up the price. There's extra security, fortification, and special equipment for a 911 center. It also needs redundant systems such as backup power keep the 911 center running if the power goes out.

But Gaylord points out what he calls extravagances - like a two story amphitheater on the 14th floor.

"It allows for large, open, auditorium style amphitheater space, but it's extremely expensive," he said.

There are also executive offices in the plans with special amenities.

"Here's an executive office suite with private bathroom and private shower," Gaylord showed us.

The office is for the Emergency Communications Director.

"Why would that person need his or her own bathroom?" Gaylord questioned. "I'm not sure. Or shower? I'm not sure."

Other things that could be considered excesses in this economy are a café, a weight room, and a penthouse on the roof.

"If there are extra materials that aren't needed or certain materials that are above the standard, then they should come out," said Gaylord.

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker says the plans - three years in the making - can still be changed. In fact, he says the private bathrooms and showers have already been taken out. But, he says, the overall plan is a good one.

"There's no question that we've got to upgrade our police and fire headquarters. We have facilities from the 50s and 60s that simply aren't adequate for anything we deal with," he said.

Gaylord isn't convinced. The Lightner building would be paid for with a property tax increase of 3 cents over the next five years. That's $30 per $100,000 of assessed home value. Gaylord says now isn't the time for a tax hike.

"I see an entirely different path that we should pursue," he said.

Gaylord says the city should stop in its tracks - despite already having spent about $15 million on the project so far - and consider upgrading the current police headquarters.

"That building could easily be upfit, fixed up, moved back into and if additional facilities are needed, those could be built on a much smaller scale at a much lower price tag," he said.

Meeker says that wouldn't be good enough.

"The problem with the current police building is it's not big enough and the materials of it are such that if you did retrofit it, it wouldn't be suited to be a police and fire headquarters so you'd have to use it for some other space," he explained.

What's more, Meeker says if the city is going to build, then now is the time. He says locking in current interest rates and construction costs could save the city millions.

"If we can lock in 40 or 50 million dollars in savings right now at an expense of 5 million dollars a year in tax money, that's something we ought to do because it will create jobs and get this done at a reasonable price and also will get this done for our employees," he said.

Gaylord agrees it would be great for those using the Lightner building, but worries the rest of Raleigh may not fully realize what they're paying for.

"Was this design ever brought to the public? No," he said.

Mayor Meeker says it's not too late for public input, and Gaylord says he'll push for that.

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