Miami takes step toward replacing moldy police headquarters

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article128910044.html

 

By David Smiley

 

Back in May, two studies confirmed what Miami’s police had known for years: The city’s downtown headquarters had a serious mold problem.

Roof leaks depositing water into the fifth and second floors were creating health issues. With some people complaining about falling ill, the city declared an emergency and moved to transfer some 130 employees, including most of the department’s investigations unit, segments of which are now scattered in satellite offices throughout the city.

A clean-up project is expected to be completed in March. But mold is hardly the building’s only problem.

According to Miami officials, the station’s central air system has repeatedly malfunctioned and is being replaced, space constraints have forced the department to store reams of evidence in storage containers outside (with embarrassing, perhaps consequential results), and the ongoing police force expansion has made tight quarters even tighter.

The problems and limitations are such that, four decades after Miami’s central station was constructed, city administrators are preparing to design and build a new police headquarters — and perhaps lease or sell the seven acres of land where the downtown facility currently sits in order to defray the cost. On Thursday, commissioners voted to draw up a competitive solicitation to send out to developers.

“It’s clear to me it’s something we should have done a while ago,” Commissioner Francis Suarez, who proposed the solicitation, said in an interview. “This is a critical need at this point.”

The city’s downtown station was built at 400 NW Second Ave. back in 1975, according to property records. The five-story building became the new hub for the department, serving as a base for officers patrolling downtown, Allapattah and Overtown. It houses investigations, property, records and evidence, the 911 call center and offices for top brass. In the late 2000s, a new police college and law enforcement high school were built on the south edge of the site.

Administrators say they’ve spent millions in recent years on maintenance, although figures requested Wednesday were not available as of early Thursday afternoon. Over the summer, they wanted to set aside $20 million for renovations as part of a bond initiative shot down by commissioners. But Miami’s police union says the city neglected the facility and allowed it to fall into disrepair.

“The building is falling apart. It’s been falling apart for awhile,” said Lt. Javier Ortiz, president of the city’s police union. “People have been saying there are problems and they just look the other way. They don’t fix them until they’re too late.”

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes and City Manager Daniel Alfonso acknowledge that the building’s problems have been ongoing for years, but note that Miami only recently pulled out of a financial tailspin that nearly bankrupted the city. When money became available, they began making repairs and looking for funds, they say, and also adding hundreds of new officers to the force at the request of commissioners.

“The building was probably built when we had 800 officers. We’re at 13 [hundred] and change right now and the possibility for growth still exists,” said Llanes. “So, the footprint of the current building, including its infrastructure of parking and everything else, is definitely inadequate for what we have right now.”

He says he began asking for money to improve or rebuild the police station over the summer as the city began pushing a bond initiative.

Llanes said his department has only begun to assess the building’s maintenance and structural needs. But commissioners appear to have already made up their minds on the necessity of a new central station, directing administrators Thursday to craft a solicitation for design and construction plans.

That drive comes as executives of All Aboard Florida have expressed interest in the land, say city sources familiar with recent discussions. The company, which is building the MiamiCentral train hub at neighboring Government Center, has been pursuing nearby land owned by an Overtown redevelopment agency and is already developing a mixed-use complex.

A company spokeswoman declined to discuss any conversations with city officials about the police property. Suarez said he has not been lobbied by All Aboard representatives and was unaware of the company’s interest until a reporter mentioned it.

Miami’s administration will now need to craft a solicitation and bring it back to commissioners for approval before sending it out to potential developers, so the parameters aren’t set. But Suarez said a sale or lease of the city’s police hub could help create a new, larger, state-of-the-art facility at reduced cost — referencing the model currently used by the city as it seeks to move its administrative headquarters cost-free off the Miami River and to a new site in partnership with developer Adler Group.

“It’s prime real estate, and the police department doesn’t necessarily have to be located on prime real estate,” Suarez said. “We’ve got to look at the current assets we have and also look at the private sector, if they have assets they want to trade.”