North Precinct police station takes a big, and necessary, step back

At the start of yesterday’s Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans Committee, there was a large, angry crowd of people waving “Black Lives Matter” signs who took turns decrying the proposed $160 million North Precinct headquarters as a “militarized bunker” and an extravagance.

north precinct external view

One speaker claimed that SPD would be training with tanks in the basement of the building. Another claimed that the main reason for the project — what would be the most expensive police precinct building in the country — was to assert Seattle’s “status” among its peer cities. Other silly things were claimed. Mostly the speakers were wrong; it’s hardly a militarized bunker, there will be no tanks in the basement, and on paper there is a rational justification for everything in the building’s design. It’s certainly true that $160 million is an enormous sum of money and it’s fair to challenge the priorities that led to the design; everything in the North Precinct is needed, but there are other things that are probably needed more in Seattle than some parts of the new building.

Nevertheless, the crowd served two important purposes yesterday, the first one being that they goaded Council members into taking a close look at the project and its faults.

At a cursory level, there were three aspects of the design that the Council members wanted to take a look at: the parking garage, the basement training facility, and the community amenities. But as they dug into the details it became clear that the real issues with the project are deeper and far more troublesome.

They didn’t focus enough on designing a cost-effective building. To understand how that happened, it’s important to know something about how city government approaches building construction. New construction is a joint endeavor of three city departments: the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), which is in charge; the City Budget Office, which tracks the money; and the department that will inhabit the building: in this case, SPD.  The Police Department knows almost nothing about building construction, so FAS handles the whole process for them: hiring a design firm and a contractor, gathering the requirements for the building, acquiring the land, etc. SPD is the customer; it tells FAS what it needs and provides input and feedback along the way.  FAS also takes care of getting community input as necessary.  Together with the Budget Office, they get it into the city’s Capital Improvement Plan and work out the cash flow and financing so the money can get approved and show up at the right time.

Police stations are hard to design, especially post-9/11, and the North Precinct station, on top of needing to support the largest and most populous precinct in the city, became the catch-all for the backlog of SPD’s needs and desires. One consideration was disaster recovery: since the North Precinct encompasses all of Seattle north of the Ship Canal, in the case of a 9.0 earthquake it could become physically cut off from the rest of the city and would need to be self-sufficient. And as a critical first-responder facility, it would need to survive the earthquake so well that it could be immediately occupied and functional. That alone is a high bar for construction standards, and adds expense.

Training facilities are another consideration. SPD doesn’t have its own policy academy, and currently its only training facility is one it leases in Tukwila that is run down and only available during the day. But since the Consent Decree has been in place, the amount of training that SPD officers undergo has increased considerably. So they planned for the basement of the new North Precinct a multi-purpose training facility with a firing range as well as other spaces that could be used for a variety of training exercises (including de-escalation).

A third consideration is community engagement. Chief O’Toole has been pushing hard on the notion of “community policing,” and based on positive feedback from the North Precinct community they planned for multi-function community rooms in the precinct building itself in order to bring members of the public onto the site and into contact with the police. It also has a public plaza, including skateboard-friendly landscaping.

And then there’s parking. The original plan includes a parking garage with 331 stalls to support SPD’s fleet of vehicles, trailers and other portable equipment, as well as police officers’ personal vehicles while they are on duty. The garage is connected to the precinct building so that officers can go straight from their cars to the locker room on the third floor, and they can access the “sally port” used to securely transfer detainees from a vehicle into the detention facilities inside the building.

Finally, in addition to the structural aspects to allow it to survive an earthquake, there are a few other nods to officer safety. The wall facing the public surface parking lot will be, to some extent, blast-resistant. Also, there will be bullet-proof glass between the public atrium and the access-controlled areas where police officers and staff work.

All of this made it into the plan, and at first glance there seemed to be few conversations along the way about cost-reducing any of these items. Council member O’Brien in particular was angry and frustrated at the lack of thoughtful cost-management that led to a $160 million price tag. Worse, at this point with the design 60% complete, the delay caused by re-designing the building will mitigate any particular savings; that’s because the construction market is very hot right now and construction costs are escalating at more than twice the consumer inflation rate: if it costs $160 million to build it this year, it will cost $167.2 million next year.  So by not carefully cost-reducing the design earlier, there is little to be saved by cost-reducing it now if it delays the project. As O’Brien pointed out (repeatedly), that’s fiscally irresponsible and the citizens of Seattle expect better from their government.

They also weren’t sufficiently transparent about the increased cost of the project. We’ve heard this story before; it’s exactly what happened with the NCIS billing system project being built by Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities.  The project was first spun up in 2012, with money for acquiring the land approved by the City Council in 2013. The initial estimate for the North Precinct building was $88.5 million in 2012, and it stayed at that amount until last summer, when the Council was asked to approve funds to pay for the detailed building design. The text of the ordinance contains this sentence:

 This multi-year project is estimated to cost $160 million and is funded by proceeds from multiple fund sources through 2019

That was the first official mention of the nearly doubling of the projected cost of the building, and it went without notice in both the committee hearing and the full Council meeting where it was officially approved. Last November the new figure was repeated in the annual update to the Capital Improvement Plan (page 725) — again without any notice that the figure had increased (or why).

So on one hand, the Council members — including O’Brien and Sawant, the two most vocal opponents of the plan now — unanimously voted for it. On the other hand, once again the executive branch managed to sneak it in without calling attention to it. There was no explanation, let alone discussion.

But those are both side shows. The biggest issue is that they treated it as if they were building just another city building. OK, that’s not entirely fair; it’s probably more accurate to say that they treated it as if they were building a fire station: critical infrastructure with special needs. FAS did what FAS usually does: it gathered requirements, hired firms to design and construct the building, and held a series of three public meetings to get community feedback on the design. FAS is good at that.

But FAS isn’t the Seattle Police Department. FAS isn’t under a federal consent decree because of abusive behavior. FAS didn’t shoot Che Taylor. FAS doesn’t have a deficit of credibility and accountability with a large fraction of the community.  FAS’s union workers didn’t just reject a contract offer because it didn’t want to be subjected to higher scrutiny and accountability.

FAS didn’t realize that it was building a Permanent Police Presence, a symbol of how SPD sees itself and its relationship to the residents of Seattle. Right now that relationship really sucks, and it’s the lens through which the community views all things SPD, including and especially their new, expensive building. Confirmation bias leads people to see in the North Precinct proposal their worst fears about the police: that they are an aloof group of abusive officers building a bunker to hide in and militarize in the basement.

When you’re constructing a Permanent Police Presence, it’s not enough to hold three community meetings, talk to a few hundred people, and call it done. You need to educate the community as a whole, particularly the ones with the lowest levels of trust in SPD. It’s not enough that they like the building; they need to like that SPD will be there, in their backyard, and will be conducting activities that the neighbors approve of.

Which brings us full circle to the public comment session at the beginning of the committee hearing yesterday, and the second purpose it fulfilled. The significance of the angry crowd of people was not that they were registering valid complaints about the building; for the most part, they weren’t. The significance is that they showed beyond any doubt that FAS and SPD had utterly failed to engage the greater community in a conversation about the North Precinct building, why it was needed, what activities would take place there, and how it would enhance the community. The speakers were misinformed and angry, and it’s the city’s own damn fault for not informing them and speaking to their fears.

Council member Gonzalez, the GESCNA committee chair, is drafting a resolution to give guidance to FAS and SPD on how to proceed with the North Precinct project. The Council (with the exception of Sawant) recognizes that a new North Precinct is desperately needed, and has been needed for years. But they will likely put a new cap on the project budget, make some recommendations on paring it back, and require regular reports going forward. They will also dictate that the North Precinct’s design and operation have a full analysis using the city’s Racial Equity Toolkit to ensure that “community perspectives are representative of the North Precinct service area’s demographics” and that FAS provide the GESCNA committee with a report of its intended community engagement plan.

That last point is the most crucial one: there is a broad conversation that still needs to happen, not about a building but about what SPD’s presence should be in the North Precinct. And while FAS is great at many things, facilitating that conversation is not in their wheelhouse. If the Council, the Mayor, and Chief O’Toole want to rescue this project, it’s time to call in the people who are skilled at that kind of difficult conversation. Three months ago, the Director of the Office of Neighborhoods Kathy Nyland would have topped that list, but she is now up to her neck dealing with the aftermath of the Mayor’s recent announcement that he is cutting ties with District Councils. So perhaps the person to call in is Sam Assefa, the new Director of the Office of Planning and Community Development. He has the skills and the respect to be able to help FAS and SPD create the kind of community engagement they need to build a consensus of understanding and support for the project in whatever form it emerges.

The other potential bridge is Council member Debora Juarez; her District 5 covers much of the North Precinct, and the new Precinct building site is located in D5. Juarez has strong street cred in her district, and is on record as a strong advocate for a new precinct station. She was absent from the committee hearing today but could become a key player in connecting FAS and SPD with community leaders who could collaborate on turning the project around — as well as better informing the community about it.

It goes without saying that this will all take time. Since the Council controls the purse strings and can erase it from the Capital Improvement Plan, the executive branch has no choice but to march down the path that Gonzalez and her colleagues codify in their resolution — which they hope to write and approve in the next couple of weeks. But we should assume that design work is frozen until the Racial Equity Toolkit analysis is done. Even then, it’s unclear how long it will take to build enough community support to get the project moving forward again.