The controversy over the planned North Precinct police station

There are lots of adjectives that describe the planned new North Precinct police station:  big, lavish, and expensive come quickly to mind. And several angry Seattle residents showed up to Wednesday morning’s Council committee meeting to use those words and more in arguing that the Council should put a stop to it and put the money to better use. But a surprising number of them referred to it as a “militarized, bomb-proof bunker.” Wait, what?

The critique of the $160 million price tag was fully expected; over the past several weeks the press had drawn much attention to that figure. In fact, that’s why the Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans Committee, which oversees SPD, scheduled a hearing in the first place. But the claims that it’s a “bunker” came out of left field. (The Stranger claims that EPIC Seattle organized the protest)

Some relevant history: The current North Precinct station, built in 1984, was designed to house 185 staff; it currently supports 285, some of which have been moved to leased space across the street. The building apparently has “drainage issues” as well (read: it has a leaky basement). Conversations to deal with the growth issue date all the way back to 1998. In 2002 it was determined that the current station could only accommodate limited expansion. In 2007 a pre-design study was conducted, but work on planning a new precinct didn’t begin in earnest until 2012.  In November of that year, the Council adopted a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) that anticipated spending $89 million on a new North Precinct station. The site, at the corner of Aurora and 130th Avenue N, was chosen in September of 2013,, and in December the City Council authorized acquisition of the land. Advisory councils advised, open houses were held, the Seattle Design Commission approved the program, site, and design,  and by last fall the near-final design was in hand — with a budget that had been increased to $160 million.

north precinct budget

The Council approved the $160 million figure in November as part of the 2016-2021 CIP. More open houses, as well as presentations to the Seattle Design Commission and Seattle Community Police Commission, have been held this past winter and spring. If the schedule continues moving forward, there will be one more open house this summer, as well as a hearing on adjusting the zoning (to put a police station in a commercial zone), and the project will go out for bid in the fall. Ground breaking would be next spring, construction would complete in fall 2018, and move-in would be in early 2019 (the timeline can be found in this briefing document given to the Council today)

The North Precinct is by far the city’s largest in terms of area; it covers around 300,000 residents, and 31% of the police emergency calls are within its boundaries.  It also covers three Council districts: 4,5, and 6, which are Johnson, Juarez, and O’Brien respectively.

precinct map

It’s big, it’s busy, it’s currently underserved by the current old, small station, and there is no argument that it needs a new one. The real questions are: what should be designed into it, and how much do we want to pay for it?

In the Council briefing, O’Toole raised several issues of relevance that contributed to the design being considered. First, in a “post-consent-decree” world, SPD is making a real commitment to a philosophy of “community policing” in which the police department is part of the community and not an armed force separate from it. That is following a specific direction from the consent decree. To that end, the building design includes public lobby space, community meeting rooms, public art, and outdoor plaza space (including “skatable” landscaping). They even threw in one more clever idea, based on community input: an area where strangers can meet up to exchange items bought/sold on eBay.  Those additional areas and features, which SPD added to respond to the directive they are working under, and which were strongly supported by the Design Commission and the community, cost money.

Second: the police station is an essential first responder service location, and the building needs to be designed and constructed to a very high standard for withstanding major events such as a large earthquake: not just the “life safety” standard of allowing building occupants to escape unharmed, but the “immediate occupancy” standard where the building is usable immediately after the event.  That makes it more expensive to design and build.

Third: it has a large parking structure for the SPD fleet and staff personal vehicles, in addition to a ground-level parking lot for visitors. The parking structure, which has been a point of criticism, was put into the plan partly for the safety of SPD officers and staff, partly to protect some specialty vehicles in the fleet, and partly because of feedback from neighbors of the current North Precinct station who complained of officers parking on their streets. It was also in recognition of the fact that while some North Precinct employees use public transportation, some shift changes are at times when there is minimal public transportation so they have no choice but to drive.

Fourth: the basement of the building is a training facility. It has been mischaracterized as just a “firing range,” but it is far more, according to O’Toole. She explained that as part of the changes being made to the police force officers are taking 5-6 times more training than they were a few years ago. The training goes well beyond the annual gun certification, and includes scenario-based training as well as “shoot/don’t shoot” and de-escalation practices.  She noted that Seattle doesn’t have its own police academy (and is practically the only major US city not to have one) and thus has limited training facilities at its disposal. It currently leases a facility in Tukwila, but on her own recent course there everyone was required to use bug spray because of the tick infestation, and rat traps were everywhere. Nevertheless, leasing that space costs them $100 per day, per officer being trained.  Having new training space in the North Precinct building would not only save them those costs, but would be a resource for the whole department and not just North Precinct officers.

A look at the plans for the new station show all of these features.  It also shows what the exterior of the building will look like:

north precinct external view

Personally, I’ve never seen a “militarized, bomb-proof bunker” with a glass lobby.

That said, designing it to the “immediate occupancy” standard means it’s of sturdy construction, with a concrete frame that’s not intended to be “bomb proof” but will certainly help if there were a terrorist attack. And within the building itself the section intended for police operations has a few additional features to secure it:

interior security features

The exterior wall shared with the public parking lot currently is labeled “blast proof,” the glass between the lobby and the working areas is intended to be bullet-proof, and the exterior windows and periphery of the garage are designed to eliminate sightlines in order to protect the officers and staff. The city staff at the committee briefing claimed that those follow standard practices for building police stations in a post-9/11 world, and they seem like reasonable precautions and a decent compromise between a building that it open to the community and a workplace that is safe for police officers who put themselves in harm’s way. And it hardly rises to the level of a militarized bunker.

The station is also intended to be a “green” building, meeting at least LEED gold+ rating. There will be solar panels on the roof of the building and parking garage, and there will be a grey water recapture and recycling program. Conveniently, those features also help to make the building more self-sufficient during a life-safety event such as an earthquake — though they of course add up-front expense to the construction.

None of the Council members  bought into the notion that the building will be a “militarized, bomb-proof bunker.” Still, they had concerns about the price tag and wanted more information about various sources of costs. O’Brien, in particular, had a laundry list of issues, starting with the garage. He wanted SPD to look at whether there were ways to either avoid building it at all, or defer building it until a future point in time where further growth required it; to that end, he wanted more data on how many SPD employees use mass transit and what the department does to encourage more transit use by its employees. He also struck back at the notion that police officers can’t afford to live in the city, claiming that they are well-paid.

O’Brien also wanted more exploration of refurbishing the existing North Precinct station and building a smaller new station. He caught SPD contradicting itself a bit, because they argued that in the short term doing so would require two separate command structures (one for each building) but in the long term they were designing the new station so that it could house two entire command-structures if the size of the precinct required it in the future. O’Brien pushed for that decision (1 vs. 2 command structures) to be made now so that an informed decision could be made about whether to try to save construction costs by shrinking the new facility.

He also pointed out that by putting the community spaces inside the station, they were adding expense by building them to the high “immediate occupancy” standard even though they probably weren’t needed in that scenario. He said that he would like to see them built “next door” instead. One might argue, though, that doing so defeats the goal of “community policing;” if they are in a separate building, that building is just another community center where police only are seen when they are called in.

O’Brien got one last complain registered: that several police officers were present outside Council Chamber today, for a smaller and less contentious crowd than was present for the SODO Arena vote (where there was a much smaller police and security presence). He was apparently concerned that their presence had an intimidating effect on those who might want to comment publicly against the new station. Committee chair Gonzalez pointed out that she didn’t ask for the police presence, and that in her understanding that is left to the discretion and request of the City Clerk’s office and the private security firm that handles City Hall. O’Brien wanted more details on what the procedures and protocols are for determining police presence.

The committee took no action today, though there were several action items for the executive branch to follow up with additional information, mostly about the relative contributions to the price tag from various features of the building design. The plan is pretty far along and it would cost both time and money to go back and do a significant redesign; at this point O’Brien would clearly like to see that, though it’s not clear if he has colleagues who feel the same way. Gonzalez and Bagshaw definitely want more information on some items but didn’t vocally balk at anything in particular. Burgess and Juarez seemed generally supportive of the plan (Juarez has gone on record as a strong supporter). The other four Council members weren’t present and have not commented publicly. If the Council wanted to take it in a different direction, they could exercise their control over the budget and withdraw funding; they could also hold the project hostage to the zoning change for the site that they will need to approve later this summer.

The faction of the public opposition that tried to characterize it as a “bunker” lost big today and destroyed their own credibility, as it was clear that in many ways the truth is quite the opposite. Those that oppose it because of the cost may still fight on, though at least some of the high cost seems justified.  With the Mayor’s announcement that money from the sale of the Pacific Place Garage should go toward funding the new station, we know that the project has his administration’s strong backing. It would take a serious effort by several Council members to derail the plan, which seems unlikely at this point.  We’ll know more by the end of the summer.