North Precinct police station finds a path forward

This morning the Council revisited the controversial North Precinct police station project. Sparks flew during the public comment session, but the council members were all business.

The hour-long public comment session was dominated by two allied and overlapping groups: Seattle’s Black Lives Matter activist community, and a #BlocktheBunker movement specifically organized around stopping the North Precinct project. Clearly they have settled on branding the proposed building a “bunker” despite facts to the contrary, and using that to rally more people to their cause. The comment session was loud and demonstrative, and the handful of people who dared to speak in favor of the project were jeered and shouted down — to the point where committee chair Lorena Gonzalez had to repeatedly threaten to shut down public comment, clear the room and/or call a recess.

But when it came time for the Council’s discussion with the City Budget Office, FAS and SPD, the conversation turned pragmatic. Several Council members, including Gonzalez, Juarez and Burgess, recounted the history of the project all the way back to 1998, and that between then and last August the Council voted a dozen times — 11 of them unanimously — to move the project forward. Nonetheless, they all believe that $160 million is too high a price, given all the other critical issues the city is currently struggling with.

In their last conversation, the Council sent the mayor’s team off to look at ways to cut the price tag — preferably in ways that wouldn’t require redesigning the building. With construction costs in Seattle rising at least 5% annually, every month of delay costs the city around $500,000; a delay in the project could quickly eat up any potential cost savings. They also asked them to come back with a new outreach plan that would better reach a diverse community of citizens, including the ones with the most to fear from the police department. Today’s conversation covered both topics in depth.

The staff managed to find $11 million to cut from the project in ways that did not force a re-design, bringing the price tag down to $149 million. Their cuts:

  • They reduced the parking garage from two bays to one (they pointed out that the original design had a three-bay garage, and it had already been cut to two during their “value engineering” phase). That saved $7 million. Leaving one garage bay allowed for the “sally port” for secure transfer of arrestees to remain on the second floor of the garage — and thus the building design unchanged.
  • They proposed not to build out the basement training facility, just leaving an empty shell in the basement. That saves $1.3 million.
  • They would not install solar power on the roofs of the building and garage, though they would still do the electrical connections so they could be added later. That saves another $2.2 million.
  • They would skip the “parklet” with skatable features outside the building, for another $200,000 savings.

The smaller garage is a permanent change. The other three would be on a “wish list” for potentially adding back in later if the construction costs were lower than expected (the project has a contingency of about $22.5 million, which is typical). Council member O’Brien, who in the prior meeting did not hide his distaste for having any parking garage at all, was absent from today’s discussion; one can assume he would have been happier but probably not assuaged by the scaled-down version.

There was a fair amount of discussion about whether there was urgency to nail down the final budget now, given that the 2017-2018 budget won’t be finalized until November and the next permitting steps for the project are still a few months away. But budget director Ben Noble explained that in order to stay on its timeline it needs to be put out to bid now, the team needs to know whether the proposed design is the one that contractors should bid on. Council member Johnson in particular was interested in whether a consultant could be brought in to look for other “value engineering” opportunities; the team explained that they have already done a round of value engineering, and had validated the contractor’s cost estimates with a third party. So the likelihood of finding additional savings, they claimed, was now (though O’Brien if present would have been highly skeptical of that).

Council member Herbold, looking to fund justifications for the high price tag, asked an intriguing question: how much of the building’s design is features required by the SPD consent decree? Noble explained that it would be a difficult figure to nail down precisely; while the consent decree specifies several required activities, it doesn’t specify where they must happen. He and Council member Burgess both noted that officer training is happening in other facilities today, but under police chief O’Toole’s leadership SPD have increased fivefold the amount of training officers take, and a new training facility would be a resource that the entire police force could leverage — not just the North Precinct. Burgess also pointed out that the upstairs meeting rooms are also intended to function as classroom training facilities.

FAS deputy director Doug Carey outlined the new plan for additional outreach. He said that FAS and SPD have worked with the Department of Neighborhoods and the Office of Civil Rights on how to communicate with the community. Moving forward, they concluded that the best course would be to utilize SPD’s Demographic Advisory Councils as key connectors to the larger community. They are setting up meetings with eight of those councils over the next month:

  • African Americans
  • East Africans
  • Filipino
  • Latino
  • Muslim/Sikh/Arab, adding in representatives from the Iraqi community in the north part of the city
  • Native Americans
  • Southeast Asians

The first meeting, with the Native American group, is on August 17th; they have meetings already scheduled with five others and are working hard on the last two. They emphasized that the goal was to use the meetings with the Demographic Advisory Councils as a starting point to reach out to larger communities, not just to gather input from those on the councils themselves. Gonzalez said that the outreach was a priority for her, and volunteered herself and all of her colleagues to help with advertising those outreach meetings.

Gonzalez began the meeting wrap-up (ironically long given several Council members’ need to comment on the project and the situation) by saying that she is supportive of moving forward with the North Precinct project at $149 million, on a few conditions:

  • the city follow through with community outreach;
  • they complete a  Racial Equity Toolkit analysis of the future uses of the building before construction begins;
  • all the proceeds from the eventual sale of the current North Precinct property be allocated to build affordable housing in Seattle.

Gonzalez is continuing to draft a resolution spelling out the Council’s guidance on the project; she expects to introduce it on Monday with a vote as soon as Monday afternoon.

Burgess’s concluding comments noted that the North Precinct is really three things: a police precinct station, a community area that includes victim advocate and victim support personnel and can accommodate up to 250 people in community meetings, and a multi-purpose training facility. He voiced his full support for Gonzalez’s proposed steps forward and for “moving forward diligently.”

Council President Harrell emphasized his belief that it’s important for the Council to show the citizens of Seattle that it is not tone-deaf. “The dollar figure is beyond the point,” he said, recognizing that they see anger and mistrust toward police departments here in Seattle and in many cities around the nation. He asked SPD to listen to the community, and stated that the Council needs to ensure that “those very committed to making sure SPD understands our rights are heard.”

Both Gonzalez and Juarez spoke to their own personal experiences with over-policing and police violence, as well as their responsibilities to both curbing police abuses and providing the necessary and essential government resources for public safety. Both reiterated their commitment to building a new North Precinct station.

Council members Sawant and O’Brien, the two most vocal critics of the North Precinct project, were absent today and thereby silent. Sawant is unlikely to shift her opposition, and it is unclear whether the compromises struck today are enough to gain O’Brien’s support (he has in the past acknowledged that the current North Precinct station is insufficient but has been unwilling to buy into the notion that the only option is to build a new one).  On the other end of the spectrum, Burgess and Juarez are strong supporters of the project, and Gonzalez has stated her conditional support in an attempt to lead the Council to an acceptable path out of the current stalemate. Harrell also seemed willing to buy in assuming the city followed through on its commitment to robust outreach an addressing community concerns. Johnson and Herbold asked challenging questions today, but neither made closing remarks and it would be difficult to definitively conclude whether they are bought in; the same is true for Bagshaw. So that leaves four “yes” votes, one “no” vote, and four in the middle. Which is the same place the Council was at going into the vote on the SODO Arena, albeit a different arrangement.

Gonzalez will be doing a lot of shuttle diplomacy over the next four days.