It's back to square one for St. Petersburg police station project

ST. PETERSBURG — It's been less than a month since Mayor Bill Foster canceled plans for a proposed $64 million police headquarters, and the future of the city's next police station is more uncertain than ever.

Foster said his staff has been busy the last two weeks determining the scale of a new project and how much it would cost.

But today, City Council member Jeff Danner plans to ask a more fundamental question: Where should it be built?

"This is a 50-year decision," Danner said. "There's some benefit to having it downtown, but we need to look everywhere. There's a lot of property for sale. The opportunities are out there for us to save money."

City administrators seemed surprised by Danner's request. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said Wednesday that he didn't even know it was coming up for discussion at today's council meeting.

For council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, it was sign of drift with a project that was intended to break ground next year.

"Council members are throwing up just about anything because there's no direction from anyone," Curran said.

It had been assumed that the police station would remain at 1300 First Ave. N. Although the current building's gawky design and dilapidated condition are much maligned, police and city administrators prefer its location over others.

It's close to Tropicana Field and downtown, where there's a large number of calls. It has easy access to the rest of the city because of the nearby interstate.

Fiber-optic cable buried beneath the current station would cost about $2 million to move. A large radio tower also would be expensive to relocate. Plus, the City Council bought land across from the current station for about $1 million for the expansion, said Public Works administrator Mike Connors.

"There's no reason to be looking at other properties when we've made this type of investment," said Connors.

"I'm not saying it can't be done, but it would increase the price tag to move it," Harmon said.

Unlike his top administrators, Foster said he's open to the idea. He said the city could sell the land where the headquarters is now to a developer and use that to relocate to another site.

"We have a large piece of property that's literally downtown urban property," Foster said. "Could it be somewhere other than where it is now? Yeah, it could be. We're looking at all options."

Danner said he wants to merge more city operations into the police headquarters. Firefighters could move in, along with communications staff. But also city employees who currently work out of the city's Municipal Services Center at 1 Fourth St. N in departments like construction services and code enforcement.

Moving all of those offices into a suburban complex would make these city services more accessible, Danner said.

"It's difficult having those things in an urban environment," he said. "Parking is a challenge; you have to park far away. Contractors can't use the garage because of the low ceilings, so they have to park in the street, where there's a two-hour limit."

Harmon said he might have security concerns about having police occupy the same building where city customers are coming in to get permits and pay bills.

But Danner's idea is warmly received by some of his colleagues.

"I'm happy to step back and take a look at choices," said Karl Nurse.

"It's absolutely something we should look at," said Steve Kornell, who wants the city to reconsider scaling back the project.

The station is financed from a 1-cent sales tax. Originally, the tax was projected to produce $50 million for the project. But when receipts slumped, it was calculated to bring in only $32 million. Kornell wants to take sales tax revenue earmarked for other projects and divert them to the station.

Foster already asked Pinellas County officials if he could do that, but was rejected. On Wednesday, he said he might try again, but this time, for a smaller amount.

"The county said no to $35 million," he said. "They might say yes to $5 million."

But that will depend on the ultimate scope of the project, which right now is uncertain.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

It's back to square one for St. Petersburg police station project 04/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 11:49pm]

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