Problems with new police HQ

September 03, 1992

In May, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that the city would move its police headquarters from the fringes of City Hall Square to the former Hecht Co. building on Howard Street. Now the plan is running into trouble.

This became evident when persistent questioning by Jacqueline McLean, the new city comptroller, and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke first led to a postponement and then to the downsizing of a $625,425 architectural contract for the new facility. Yesterday, that contract was pared down to a $180,000 assessment of the police department's space requirements that will also analyze how a police headquarters would affect traffic and parking in the Howard Street corridor.

This is a prudent approach. Too many unanswered questions remain about the Howard Street location's suitability for the Schmoke administration to rush ahead.

Mayor Schmoke selected the Hecht location from among a number of other options because a police headquarters would pump life into Howard Street by turning that one-time retail hub into a government corridor. While the mayor's motives may have been commendable, it is evident that no real planning went into the decision. Further scrutiny suggests the Hecht site may have some problems that are costly or impossible to solve.

For one thing, now that a new light-rail line has changed traffic patterns on Howard Street, the proposed police headquarters building would be accessible only through a fire lane from Eutaw Street, a congested two-way street serving shoppers at nearby Lexington Market. Additional vehicle access could be gained from Lexington Street, but that would spell the end to a pedestrian mall which was supposed to breathe life into downtown retailing.

It also is becoming increasingly evident that the design of the old Hecht Co. building is unsuitable for successful recycling as a law-enforcement command post. It would have to be demolished and replaced with a new police headquarters building.

That, in turn, would alter the entire Howard Street revitalization strategy, which was built on the assumption that landmark buildings such as the old Hecht's and the Stewart colossus across the street could be retained and adapted to new uses. Howard Street's ambience would change drastically if the Hecht Co. structure were dynamited.

That's why the space-assessment study ordered by the Board of Estimates is very much in order. But shouldn't that have been done before a site was selected by the mayor? This haphazard planning process is particularly troubling in view of the fact that the current police headquarters, only 15 years old, has to be vacated because it was not built properly and contains materials hazardous to the health of workers.

Baltimore cannot afford to repeat such a costly mistake.

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