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University City poised to resolve question of new police headquarters

University City poised to resolve question of new police headquarters

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UNIVERSITY CITY • In a community known lately for provocation on topics large and small, there is little dispute that the city must address the physical deterioration of an outdated police headquarters cited earlier this year as a health hazard.

How to rectify the matter is another story.

“It’s a tough decision,” acknowledged Councilman Terry Crow. He has yet to make up his mind on an issue the City Council will be asked to act upon Monday night.

Two weeks ago, the council delayed a vote on the matter.

Mayor Shelley Welsch and City Manager Lehman Walker lead a coalition of residents and elected officials who believe the solution is to build a $12 million police station.

On the opposite side are preservationists and traditionalists that favor a $25 million allocation to keep the law enforcement agency in the 113-year-old City Hall annex it has occupied since 1938.

Chris Chiodini, the architect hired by the city to study the two options, said at a public hearing last week that a renovation of the environmentally compromised building would entail dismantling and then rebuilding the structure brick-by-brick.

There are indications that the issue before the council Monday night may have already been decided.

Walker at a public hearing on the question last week disclosed that the city has entered into “confidential negotiations” for the purchase of a site for construction of a new police building.

Citing a price tag that is half the expected cost of a gut rehab of the City Hall annex, the city manager told residents his staff had concluded “the best thing is to build a new facility.”

Critics take exception with Walker’s assessment.

They note Welsch has expressed interest in perhaps converting an upgraded annex into a space for performing arts, office space and other uses at an estimated cost of $12 million.

The $12 million devoted to a new building combined with the $12 million for improvements to the annex, they argue, is nearly equal to the $25 million the city is hesitant to spend on upgrades to keep the police department in its current location.

But Chiodini says the preliminary financial projections don’t take into account major expenditures, notably the cost of relocating police headquarters should the city choose to renovate the old building.

Chiodini cautions that the actual cost for rebuilding an annex with “antiquated systems” could also skyrocket once a complete tear-down reveals the full extent of the environmental and structural damage.

Walker points to another advantage of new construction: the use of $7 million in reserve funds set aside by the council to provide financing for better than half of the projected cost.

General obligation bonds appear to be the most likely means to finance the balance, according to Walker.

Supporters of a state-of-the-art police headquarters say a new site would offer the added bonus of maintaining University City’s compliance with the accreditation benchmarks set out in Senate Bill 5, the Ferguson-inspired legislation that imposes enhanced standards on municipal law enforcement agencies.

Welsch meanwhile dismisses the opponents who claim the city is using the declining annex to justify an expedited vote for a new command center.

The mayor at the March 14 council meeting recited a timeline of city-held public information sessions and public hearings on the headquarters’ proposals dating back to 2010.

She accused detractors of “grandstanding and Tea Party obstructionism.”

On the headquarters issue, staunch mayoral critic Jeff Hales agrees with Welsch that the matter needs to be resolved, one way or another.

But, “given the magnitude of the police station I think we need to make sure we are making the right decision,” Hales said. “And a lot of questions remain.”

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Steve Giegerich is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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