New HQ for Baltimore County police finally moving toward completion

June 13, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County fire officials working on the 10th floor of th ++ mirror-surfaced county Public Safety building joke about the large, carrion-eating turkey vultures that eye them as they glide by the mostly empty structure.

After 3 1/2 years of county ownership, only three of the 11 floors of the former Blue Cross and Blue Shield building at 700 E. Joppa Road are in use. Full occupancy is at least two years away. The other floors, stripped as clean as a carcass is by vultures, await renovation.

The county has been seeking a badly needed new police headquarters since the late 1970s and more recently has been seeking a fire department headquarters. The search ended in December 1989 when the county paid $12.5 million for the 7.3-acre complex. Asbestos removal, repairs and renovation were expected to cost another $12.5 million. So far, those costs have been lower than expected, and the project may cost $4 million less than was originally estimated.

Currently, the Police Department uses the eighth floor and shares the ninth floor with the Fire Department, whose top officials moved in in December 1989 while the building was still partly occupied by Blue Cross. Fire department volunteer coordinators and arson investigators use the 10th floor. Renovations and asbestos removal on those floors cost $975,000.

Bids for renovation

Contractors who were paid $1 million to remove asbestos from the rest of the building stripped the empty floors to the bare walls, leaving only a few smoke detectors dangling from wires.

rTC Advertisements for bids on $5.5 million worth of renovations to the rest of the building will appear this month, said Kurt J. Buckler, public works capital projects chief. He said he hopes the contractor will begin work in November and finish in late summer 1995.

That date draws cynical laughter from several long-suffering police officers still working in the poorly ventilated, crowded basement of the 1960-vintage headquarters annex on Kenilworth Drive in Towson.

"Try 1997, or maybe 1998," said one officer, disgusted by years of delays.

Out of business

One reason for the delays is that the architectural firms hired to draw the renovation plans kept going out of business.

The first firm, Gzesh and Associates, went belly up Oct. 31, 1990, nearly a year after the county bought the building. The second firm, Edmunds and Hyde, went out of business April 13, 1992, after more than a year's work.

Each new architect had to start over, nearly from scratch, Mr. Buckler said.

There were other reasons, too. Steel support beams in the basement, found to be seriously rusted from water leakage, required $210,000 to repair. Plans were changed after County Executive Roger B. Hayden took office in December 1990 and decided to limit the building's use to police and fire agencies. This year, an internal reorganization of the police department led to further changes in the plans. And in March, Cpl. John Meeker, the department's main liaison on the project, died.

Plans for the headquarters include separate fire and police museums on the lobby floor, a shared underground exercise room and a shared cafeteria on the sixth floor. The fire department eventually will occupy the second, third and fourth floors, and the police will use the rest. The new building has 164,080 square feet of space, more than three times what was available in the old police headquarters. The change will be striking.

Supplies in hallways

The property room in the old police headquarters basement is filled with confiscated guns, drugs and stacked boxes of evidence. Crime lab officers work in a converted garage bay and can only ventilate the room by opening the garage door. $H Supplies are stacked in hallways. Upstairs, hallways smell from stained and torn rugs and from moisture in the wheezing air conditioning system.

"We're coming apart at the seams," Col. Leonard J. Supenski said.

The police department began searching for a new building in the late 1970s, when then-County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson agreed to buy land for one. He gave up the idea in 1983, when the cost was estimated at $29.3 million.

In December 1988, then-County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen jumped at the chance to buy the Blue Cross building when he learned the health insurer would be moving to Owings Mills. The deal was approved one year later.

Mr. Buckler said he was amazed when he inspected the building.

Prestigious building

"The 12th floor mechanical room was so clean you could eat off the floor," he said, adding that inspectors reported that the building had asbestos, but was in excellent shape.

For its money, the county got a prestigious building near county government headquarters in Towson, with enough land and underground utilities in place to build a second structure. Ten yearly payments of about $3.3 million will pay off the $25 million in loans for the purchase and renovation plus $9 million in financing costs.

The old police headquarters will eventually undergo $1.6 million in renovations to become the Towson precinct station, which is housed in a 1927 building. The fire department will keep some offices in its old headquarters at York Road and Bosley Avenue.

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