Whether the city needs to spend $81 million for a new police headquarters is a debatable proposition. But there should be no question about spending $3.9 million to save the old Carpenter Chevrolet building on East Main Street – don’t.
The City Council will consider the fate of the 1923 building at its Sept. 8 meeting, and so far sentiment seems to favor dumping it.
Preservationists who argue for saving the plain-as-water building by incorporating it into the police headquarters should take a serious look at rising costs and back off. The Carpenter building has no particular historical significance, and certainly no outstanding architectural attributes.
Instead, this city’s taxpayers ought to clamoring for an explanation of how a police headquarters that started out at $62.4 million quickly rose to $81 million.
The questions could begin with the location itself. For one, environmental mitigation, costly and time-consuming, is a given at a site that serviced motor vehicles for decades.
There were alternative sites for the headquarters, such as one off Fayetteville Street, that would have presented fewer environmental hurdles than the Main Street location. And the alternatives would have spared the Carpenter Building.
The city’s attempt to gentrify East Main Street, the main thoroughfare into chronically depressed East Durham hasn’t been helped by the block-long, Late Stalin Period Social Services Building staring down on pedestrians. The police headquarters will be across the street.
Give preservationists credit for saying the Carpenter Building eases the built-space transition from downtown to East Durham, but a well-designed police headquarters can do the same, likely better.
O’Brien/Atkins, architectural consultant for the building, has come up with five variations on a theme, two of them awkwardly suturing the Carpenter Building onto the headquarters. These designs might as well mix oil and water.
Fortunately, the headquarters design is on a more human scale – two stories – than the Social Services behemoth across the street.
Nonetheless, police headquarters aren’t known for architectural grace, and understandably so: These buildings represent function over form, and inherent in them is the authority of the state to maintain public order.
Still, they don’t have to go off the rails like Chapel Hill’s bizarre William Blake Building, A trapezoid that dates from the early 1970s when that progressive college burg garbed its downtown officers in blue blazers.
I have sometimes thought that more decentralization of Durham’s police presence would better benefit the city than investing tens of millions into a big new headquarters building.
A headquarters is necessary, of course, for vital administrative work such as the command staff, armory, evidence vaults, emergency communications and so forth. But if the city had considered putting more money and resources into the five district stations while funding a smaller headquarters, I do believe we would have been better off in the long run.
Ideally, the district stations should be modern, detached buildings along the lines of fire stations. Such stand-alone stations would give the police a much higher presence in the five districts.
As things stand now, few people in the districts know where their station is, or for that matter, who’s in charge of it.
The enormous price of the new headquarters comes down to more than $128,000 per employee (there about 630, including sworn officers and civilians). That’s a bundle of boodle, even by Durham standards.
No one should expect Durham to police itself on the cheap, but neither should the city pay more than necessary for effective 24/7 policing. Surely we are ponying up too many tax dollars for the new headquarters, but however this shakes out, paying an additional $3.9 million to save the Carpenter Building deserves a thumbs down from the City Council.
Durham city government went through a dismal and corrupt period of fiscal insanity in the 1990s, and all this summons old spirits from the deep.
Let the spirits lie undisturbed. Common sense suggests we can do better.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.