Police Headquarters Renovation Triples in Cost

Critics Say Problems with Original Plan Should Have Been Clear.

What looked like a simple remodeling job at the Gainesville Police Department headquarters is on hold because officials fear they may be wasting city funds on a money pit due to the poor condition of the overall structure.

Now, the city is considering whether to remodel the building at significant cost, or whether to tear it down and construct a new state-of-the art headquarters that could cost nearly triple what Gainesville initially allocated. Officials expect to make a decision this fall, when they’re scheduled to get proposals from construction companies on the two alternatives.

The choice should be obvious, says Bahar Armaghani, assistant director of Facilities Planning & Construction at the University of Florida.

“I know, we need to reuse and work with what we have for sustainability and longevity, but this building does not have any features that can be used in the modern-day environment,” she says in a letter to Assistant City Manager Fred Murry and other officials.

Armaghani adds that in her professional opinion the building should be demolished and a new building constructed.

City spokesman Bob Woods says that the difficulties with remodeling only came to light once, crews opened up walls.

“It was not until this approximately 56,000-square-foot building was sufficiently exposed that staff was able to bring in additional professionals to assess the various components of the building,” he says.

But Armaghani says many of the problems that make remodeling impractical would have been obvious to her if she had looked at the building before work began.

One big problem was that some offices were in old holding cells with concrete walls that couldn’t be moved, she says. “This doesn’t lend itself to a modern working environment,” she says.

As it was, Armaghani didn’t see the building until May 20, when she made an inspection after Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodicasa asked her to help the city.

The city initially had planned to spend $3.5 million to upgrade ducts for heating and air conditioning, replace carpets and paint—without relocating police and support staff.

But project manager John Curtis, who became general contractor for this job when he began working for the city a year ago, quickly started having doubts.

The headquarters was a hodgepodge created by adding onto the original 1952 building in 1961, 1972 and 1983 and included these problems, among others, he says:

  • Outer walls made with brick on plywood are hardly sturdy enough for a building that is expected to serve as the city’s operations center during intense hurricanes.
  • Some major load-bearing walls have been weakened because they were punched through to accommodate utilities during previous remodeling projects.
  • Heating, air conditioning, wiring and plumbing must be upgraded to meet code.
  • Inadequate distance between floors makes it impossible to accommodate the enlarged ductwork that’s needed to provide the airflow considered standard today.

“You can’t put a Band-Aid on a single piece of the building,” says Curtis, who is a licensed contractor.

David Grant, a retired architect for Shands HealthCare who specialized in remodeling, says that the problems the city ran into should have been obvious from reviewing the original building plans, followed by “field verifying” them.

“You always have to check to see if what’s on the drawings is what was actually built,” Grant says. “It’s bad practice to not field verify.”

Making the Best of Things

Curtis, who wasn’t involved in the initial planning for the project, has been working with Captain Lonnie Scott, who is overseeing the work for the GPD.

Scott says that he and Curtis clashed at first. “I said, ‘This is the budget; make it work,’” Scott says. But Scott came around to Curtis’ view that the building couldn’t be easily fixed. Then the two men had the task of taking the bad news up the chain of command.

“Each step of the way, people said, How can that be?’” Smith says.

The demolition work, done primarily by prison crews, uncovered asbestos, which was abated, Curtis says. Much of the $300,000 that has been spent so far would have been needed for that work, even if the plan had been to demolish the building from the start, he says.

Armaghani says she’s impressed by the approach Curtis is taking. “I think there’s been a lesson learned,” she says. “John is doing everything he can.”

Now that the project has grown exponentially, at best, the police offices won’t be back together for another year and half and work will cost $5.5 million more than originally planned.

Costs for Reconstruction, New Construction Similar

If the city decides to remodel what’s salvageable from the existing building, then construct a new addition, police will end up with 49,000 square feet of space at a cost of $9.5 million, according to city staff estimates. That cost would include remodeling the former Bread of the Almighty Food Bank as a physical fitness training facility for $724,000.

In comparison, constructing a brand-new 40,000 square feet headquarters would cost $9.9 million, staff estimates.

Both scenarios would provide less space than the 56,000 square feet in the existing building.

Officials say they can pay for the additional work by using $1.5 million in funds from property forfeited from criminals and $4 million in bonds. The city would repay the bonds at $300,000 a year over 20 years, using salary savings from vacant police positions.

Mastrodicasa says she hopes that the city’s budget crisis will ease over the next three years and that the city will be able to budget other dollars for debt payment. But Woods says city staff are planning to use the salary savings from vacancies for the entire 20 years to avoid additional strain on the city budget.

That doesn’t go over well with Jeff McAdams, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. He argues the city should use the vacancy dollars for overtime so patrols remain well staffed despite the vacancies. “With the level of robbery and rape we have, we need every hand on deck.”

Building Long a Concern

The shortcomings in police headquarters have been apparent for years, Scott says.

The problems included poor air quality caused by inadequate ventilation and mold, cramped quarters, and low ceilings in some areas.

In 2002, former Police Chief Norm Botsford had to move from his office while mold was removed. The city spent $90,000 on mold remediation in that time.

Employees also complained of breathing problems. Among them were Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, who was then a GPD captain. She was one of two GPD employees who filed workers’ compensation claims against the city because of mold-induced illnesses.

While air tests showed the building was safe, Darnell says, “I developed asthma while I was working in the building, but my asthma has gone away since then.”

However the city decides to proceed with the building, the end result will help GPD provide service in keeping with today’s law enforcement practices, Scott says. It will have an open and inviting feel, conference rooms for the public to talk confidentially to officers and attractive rooms for meetings with the public, he says.

“We’re a part of the community,” he says. “We don’t want to be apart from the community.”

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