Moving police headquarters

March 03, 1992

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is about to make a far-reaching decision about relocating Baltimore City's police headquarters.

Optimally, this decision should enable the city to locate not only the communications facilities but also the administrative functions of both the police and fire departments in one location, as several consultants have recommended.

Yet Mr. Schmoke is thinking of moving police headquarters to the old Hecht's department store, at Howard and Lexington streets, which is not big enough to house a combined police and fire bureaucracy. Although that site may have political advantages in pacifying the remaining merchants in the area, it could be a costly mistake.

Neither city taxpayers nor the police need another mistake; it is scandalous enough that the current headquarters has to be abandoned. The building was constructed in 1972 at a cost of $14 million. It now turns out the structure is filled with potentially cancerous asbestos and lacks the ventilation systems that appeared in the blueprints.

The police department must be moved out of the building in the next two years. Mr. Schmoke can either relocate the headquarters to a temporary site while the 10-story police tower is repaired or find a permanent, new site. Although some of Mayor Schmoke's political advisers argue in favor of reconstructing the interior of the current police headquarters as the most cost effective solution, the mayor seems to have decided otherwise.

It may be that a new police headquarters makes sense. The Inner Harbor, after all, is spreading toward City Hall, escalating land values. Commerce Place, a 30-story skyscraper, is nearing completion at Baltimore and South streets, paving the way for the redevelopment of the whole area. The Schmoke administration is preparing legislation to get rid of The Block, the seedy strip-tease and pornography district that shared that portion of Baltimore Street with police headquarters.

When city officials began scouting for an alternative headquarters site, they said a building was needed with 296,000-433,000 square feet of space. The 280,000-square-foot Hecht's building does not meet that requirement. Moreover, it does not lend itself to construction of a helicopter landing pad, a facility police headquarters should have. If the city is considering using additional space in properties adjoining the old Hecht's building, taxpayers need to know about it. Otherwise, the Schmoke administration should look for alternative sites.

The police headquarters decision is a fateful one. It should facilitate the long-recommended space-sharing arrangement between the police and fire departments both to save money and to improve operating efficiency. We urge Mayor Schmoke to select a location that fits the current and future needs of the fire and police departments rather than settling for what is clearly an inadequate site.

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