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What to do with Police HQ?

June 24, 2009 Downtown, History/Preservation 14 Comments

On June 12th, the Post-Dispatch reported that Dan Isom, the new Police chief believes that the city will need to spend “tens of millions of dollars on renovating, rebuilding or relocating” the existing Metro Police Department headquarters (just south of city hall).

St. Louis Police HQ, photo by Steve Patterson
St. Louis Police HQ, photo by Steve Patterson

The three options being presented the Police Board on June 24th are:

  1. A complete updating of the existing building, apparently by working around the existing occupants.
  2. Moving into a temporary location while the existing building is demolished and a new one is constructed on the existing site.
  3. Moving to an existing building somewhere else in town.

I’d add a fourth – moving to a new building/campus, somewhere else in town.

According the newspaper article, the last major renovation was in 1962, nearly 50 years ago. I’ve never been in this building, but I’ve been in plenty of other ones, both public and private, of the same age, and I have little reason to doubt the chief’s conclusions. So far, all I know about the options are what I’ve read in the paper. And at this point, I’m thinking the last option is probably the best one and the second one is the worst one.

There are multiple issues that should be considered, some obvious, some not. The structure was built in 1928, so it would certainly qualify as both a significant structure and an historic one. According to the Post-Dispatch, “The department hit peak deployment in the 1970s, with 2,200 officers. A year ago, it sank to 1,340, roughly a low for the last century. The number was up to 1,393 this spring.” The way people commute has changed significantly over the past 75 years – most ranking officers now have take-home vehicles, and no longer use public transit to get to work. In its unique, state-run status, the Police chief doesn’t really need to report to the Mayor on a regular basis. Our Aldermen work more closely with the District commanders (located at one of three area stations outside of downtown) than they do with the chief. The need for security of the building and its contents has evolved significantly since it was built. How the Police Department is managed and how Police work is accomplished has evolved, and continues to.

One big reason for keeping the location where it is is its proximity to the courts – one job of the Police is to testify in criminal trials. A secondary reason is that it’s close to both public transit and other city offices. But, much like how the Fire Department Headquarters are more-centrally located, outside of downtown, at Jefferson and Cass, there are arguments for starting “with a clean sheet” somewhere else. It all boils down to what everyone at HQ does, and, unfortunately, where to park the fleet of official vehicles that are an integral part of any police operation.

As we all know, St. Louis has a lot of underutilized structures, vacant land and struggling neighborhoods. For that reason alone, I see little reason for this building to be demolished. If it can be renovated and made to work for the Police for another 30 years, great, do it, and I’ll continue to ignore the on-street parking the Police claim on Clark and other streets. It’s the best way to preserve an historic structure, but I have my doubts about how real of an option that really is. In reality, it may make a lot more sense to find the Police a new location and to put other city departments here.

Which gets to moving – we have multiple options when it comes to existing buildings, including the old phone company headquarters downtown and multiple surplus city school buildings. The city owns multiple parcels of vacant land. What it really boils down is the complexity and the uniqueness of the various components of the program for an ideal home for the management of the organization. According to the Post-Dispatch, the current building houses “most of the department’s 517 civilian employees . . . along with hundreds of police officers, including the upper command staff.” If most of the officers and civilian employees who work at HQ rarely go to court, location becomes a different issue – there are reasons why a location outside of downtown might make more sense, including the ability to create a secure, low-rise campus (an anchor for McEagle perhaps?). I know, I know, it’s not the “urban” answer, but it could likely be the most cost-effective one, and one that would remove a vehicular-intensive operation from downtown.

The only option that really makes little sense is a temporary move. We don’t lack for vacant land, even in the immediate area. This is a significant building, and given our current economic constraints, I have little confidence that any replacement would measure up to the exterior appearance of the existing structure. We either need to make what’s there work for the 21st Century, or we need to find a new location that will. And, as the the mayor’s chief of staff noted in the Post-Dispatch article, “the market for office space has gone real soft, so . . . it is a . . . buyer’s market”, one where you can easily purchase a building for significantly less than its replacement cost. The only real downside of contemplating a move out of downtown will be the inevitable politics that will be a part of it – bringing ±750 stable, long-term jobs to any neighborhood would likely be viewed positively. Bringing them to one that’s “economically challenged” / “struggling” could be a godsend . . .

– Jim Zavist


Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. northside neighbor says:

    Jim, why the quotation marks around economically challenged and struggling? Do you think those descriptions are questionable?

  2. Jimmy Z says:

    Some people take offense when others classify them, put them or their neighborhood “in a box”. Many parts of our city face challenges – I was just trying not to offend any more than I normally do . . .

  3. Randy V. says:

    The no-brainer would be to renovate the existing building. It was built for policework, it is ideally located. In every older big city in America, the police HQ is downtown near the other official public buildings. The police headquarters have become synonymous with “going downtown” in big cities across the country. With all the successful retrofitting that has taken place in this city in the past 20 years, why should we believe that this building is somehow exempt from effective rehab? Bullshit. They should stay put and upgrade the existing structure.

  4. Jason Stokes says:

    Low rise campus? In the city? McEagle?

    Steve, if this level of guest post keeps up, I’ll be glad to find other sites to read. Come on. This must be a joke.

    [slp —I’m interested in all points of view. You want to contribute]

  5. Steveo says:

    Let’s put a new headquarters at the far east end of CORTEX.

  6. Bill says:

    Getting the Police HQ out of that current building and location is a great idea. The building is a total white elephant, and there are a couple of cost effective upgrades readily available for a fraction of the cost of trying to make that building work. One is the former head quarters of Sherwood Medical in the western part of downtown. Fully re-habbed and wired by AG Edwards and available for a song. A second option is a couple of floors of the Abram Building on 15th and Market – which the City recently bought from the Feds and is in the process of rehabbing. The FBI used to be located there. The building is huge and the City has no idea how it is going to use it all.

    Moving the Police HQ would also allow getting all the police parking off of Clark Street and for the sidewalks there to be widened to better accomodate pedestrians.

  7. b says:

    Put it smack dab in the middle of the worst part of some area of North city. If nothing else, it will certainly clean up several surrounding blocks with all the police presence.

  8. Brian says:

    A new SLMPD HQ could have been built on the NE corner of Tucker and Clark. But Larry Williams doesn’t answer to the Governor.

  9. Jimmy Z says:

    There are many parts of town where low or mid-rise would be highly appropriate. Do I/we want to see the existing structure replaced with a suburban campus on the same location? Absolutely not! But outside of downtown, it could easily make sense (see the current FD HQ).

    The real question is which option is best – stay and renovate, tear down and replace, or move somewhere else, outside of the CBD? I can support either the first or last, but I have serious reservations about rebuilding on the same site.

  10. Jeff says:

    It could be the first tenant in ballpark village. I am laughing while I type it but anything seems reasonable now that they have a softball field there.

  11. Brian S. says:

    I think the Sherwood Building would be a good option for the SLPD, although my first preference would be to renovate the existing building. I’d like to see HQ remain downtown.

  12. The only solution is rehab. For a LLC, get historic tax credits, and get it done.

    Should we move City Hall into another building simply because it needs work? The same for the Police. This is a Civic Building and reflects who we are as a City.

  13. ceepee deecee says:

    I second Jason Stokes. I miss the old Urban Review.

  14. studs lonigan says:

    Watch out for grave, official pronouncements characterizing the property as “structurally unsound” and a “public safety issue”.

    Once that’s all being said, you’ll know for sure they want to demo it. These are central and perennial themes when approvals are sought for demolishing something historic or cool.


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