Troubling questions remain over safety center

April 8, 2010 3:46:54 PM PDT
This week, the Raleigh City Council named a task force to study the controversial Clarence E. Lightner Public Center. The proposed new $200 million public safety building would consolidate the city's public safety operations and other local government offices and functions in one location.

The 16-story center would be located at the corner of Hargett and McDowell streets - what is currently the site of the City of Raleigh Police Department headquarters. Plans to go ahead with construction were voted down one month ago largely because it required a tax hike.

Mayor Charles Meeker, who supports the current design, tried to get city council to approve it when the city manager found a way to do it without the tax increase, but he couldn't convince a majority.

"I don't think we're going to be able to hammer out all the specifics right this moment," explained City Councilmember Thomas Crowder.

Approving a public safety center could now take months. The task force will decide new criteria and send them to a consultant. That panel of experts will judge if the current plan - which has already cost taxpayers $25 million - is practical or extravagant.

Council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Bonner Gaylord and Russ Stephenson, and will look again at basic questions after two of them approved the architecture and design work two years ago. They'll ask if downtown is the right place for a safety center. Should it be a high-rise? And, should all public safety agencies be in one building?

Some might wonder why they didn't ask those questions years ago.

"Looking back, it never occurred to any of us on council that any of these would not be done to nationally recognized standards, to these kinds of critical emergency needs standards," Stephenson explained.

Stephenson says he assumed the city manager's team would have followed national standards for a safety center. But, he said he can't find another safety center in the U.S. like this. He said he finally received the threat assessment on Lightner in February, 15-months after it was given to the city manager.

He said the report misses key questions.

"The threat assessment consultant, I asked, I called them up and said, 'Tell me, were you asked about site selection, which we understand is really important in getting the right kind of emergency services facility? No, we weren't asked about sites. Were you asked about the wisdom of putting all this in one hi-rise building?' He said, 'No, weren't asked about that.'"

Stephenson will not estimate how long the new process will take. The mayor hoped a speedy approval could save the city $50 million in low interest and construction costs. Now, he's resigned to a much longer process.

"There is going to be further scrutiny with the Lightner Center before anything happens there," he said.

It could mean the building is built somewhere else entirely and might be multiple buildings instead of one. All that remains to be decided.

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