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Monday, February 8, 2010

Council trio: Two pegs (one is round) a bad fit for tall, square Lightner building

Posted by on Mon, Feb 8, 2010 at 4:59 PM

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Updating the debate over the proposed Clarence E. Lighner Public Safety Center since our Indy story 12 days ago. That the proposal's rollout was bungled is now a given; but the question remains, who bungled it? Was it City Manager Russell Allen's fault? Or Mayor Charles Meeker's? Or both?

It was Allen's job to shepherd the Lightner plan through the bureaucracy. But it was Meeker, along with Allen, who decided the plan ready for the City Council's rubber stamp of approval when clearly it wasn't.

Since the rollout, a trio of City Council members has pushed back against the Meeker-Allen combo and their hurry-up-and-vote approach, raising a series of questions that go not just to the details of the building  (e.g., the fitness center, the circular stairway) but also to its basic premises -- i.e., its scale, function(s) and location.

Councilors Crowder, Gaylord and Stephenson are asking why this ought to be a single, 17-story tower when it appears that it contains two quite different functions, one of which (emergency operations and technology) requires a very expensive, "hardened" building while the other (police and fire deparment administration) doesn't.

Moreover, the police/fire administrative part of the building is envisioned as a public-friendly space, with easy access -- and a cafe -- for anyone who wants to enter. That's exactly the opposite of what's described for the other, emergency-center portion of the building, which is that it's supposed to be secure -- i.e., difficult to enter or attack.

So, the councilors observe, while the public-friendly space should certainly be located on an accessible downtown site, the secure-from-attack space should probably be somewhere else.

Good point.

A memo from Crowder, Gaylord & Stephenson to their fellow Council members and Allen is posted on the New Raleigh website. (New Raleigh's writers like the Lightner plan; their posts and the comments make good reading.)

The heart of their memo is these three paragraphs:

The most expensive elements of the proposed building are necessary to protect emergency operations (defined in the state building code as critical services) in time of emergency. These elements include ballistic building envelope, blast-resistant structure, internal power generation and specialized environmental systems. While we agree there may be some functional efficiencies gained by housing central office functions for fire and police in the same building, we believe that there are premium costs associated with housing non-emergency functions – accounting for roughly half of the proposed habitable space -- in an emergency operations structure.

Performance Improvements Reports

The January 29 staff reports indicate that most projected fire and police performance improvements would be achieved by consolidating central office functions. Few listed improvements require central office functions to be housed in an emergency operations building. In fact, the projected information technology performance improvements emphasize the location independence of communications and information access.

Secure Functions versus Public Functions

The September 2008 Threat Assessment Report Conclusions states “The loading dock, the interior sally port and the public space on the first two floors are three areas primary vulnerabilities in the current design.” (p.8) The report describes hand-delivered bombings as “commonplace” in the U.S. (p.24) and “[w]ith both the exterior grounds and the ground floor of the facility open for un-screened public access, the hand-delivery of an improvised explosive device in these areas such as in a backpack or briefcase is a serious concern. Similar attacks could also be carried out using incendiary devices. If such an attack were carried out, the potential exists for casualties in the immediate vicinity of the event, as well as an increased potential for progressive collapse of the structure if an explosive device was placed near a structural column.” (p.31)

***

In a single building, the councilors note, both functions must be "hardened" -- you can't have a half-hardened structure -- which is why the pricetag for the 17-story job is so high per square foot. (Nearly $500/sf, or $140 million, for the building alone; almost $700, or $205 million, counting the furnishings and other expenses.)

Separating the two functions could thus be a major money-saver, they think, yielding a much smaller "expensive" building and another building with a considerably lower per-sf cost.

The three are also questioning -- Crowder and Gaylord explicitly and Stephenson implicitly -- the decision to locate the new building, however big it is, on the site of the existing police department headquarters. To put anything there, of course, the existing building must be torn down.

Gaylord, the Council's newest member and the general manager at North Hills -- developer John Kane's empire -- says there are plenty of vacant or near-vacant lots to build on downtown without putting the wrecking ball to a perfectly good older building. Sure, the Lightner Center would be LEED-certified, Gaylord says. But the "greenest" building is the one you don't tear down.

That's a bit different than Crowder's argument, which he made fruitlessly two years ago and is repeating now that Gaylord's on the scene: Crowder insists that in the long-term, the best use of the land facing historic Nash Square is for housing, retail space and perhaps a hotel (there used to be one there).

It isn't an office building, public or private, that's buttoned-up tight by day and verges on empty at night and on weekends.

So Crowder, unlike Gaylord, is not against tearing down the old police building someday as part of a larger scheme to relocate city government -- including the municipal building next door -- to another downtown location. The Nash Square properties could then be sold for the kind of private development that would enliven the square and extend the Fayetteville Street revival to the west.

The goal, he says, should be "highest and best use of the land" for the next 50 years.

That "someday," though, when the two buildings can come down and be replaced by something better, is probably in the distant future given the state of the economy and especially the collapse of the real estate market, Crowder adds.

Until that day, then, the Crowder-Gaylord-Stephenson memo suggests a Plan B: renovate the existing police building as office space; keep using the two buildings into which the police department has relocated (one on Six Forks Road, the other downtown on W. Cabarrus Street); and build a new Emergency Operations Center on another site TBD.

Their memo asks Allen to supply cost estimates for Plan B versus the Lightner Plan, as well as to respond to the concerns about incompatible functions in a single building.

They're good questions. The fact that they're only being discussed now underscores how not-ready for Council approval (or public approval) this plan continues to be. I was reminded the other day that the new Convention Center, built for approximately the same cost, was vetted over a period of several years at public meetings that were, first, concerned with where it should go -- a dozen sites were considered -- and then what the design should be. The total number of such meetings: About 100, according to a knowledgeable person not on the Council.

By contrast, the Lightner Center has never been subjected even to a single public hearing, let alone any process that would've caused the taxpayers to embrace it in these parlous times. Which explains why they haven't, and why emails to the Council prior to last week's meeting ran 400 against to literally one -- one -- in favor.

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