THE NEW Northern District police station is a model of a modern law enforcement facility in just about every imaginable way -- except one.
Among its many commendable features are a state-of-the-art computer security system, interview rooms with video cameras, locker rooms and showers for men and women, lots of parking and a large conference room.
What it lacks -- glaringly -- is a presence in any of the communities the station's officers are there to protect.
Stuck off on a wooded site on what was once a landfill on West Cold Spring Lane near the Jones Falls Expressway, there's nary a house or a pedestrian in view.
If this were a public works outpost to maintain roads, the address near the nexus of two heavily traveled arteries might make sense. As the site of a police station, it is sorely wanting.
To borrow from the real estate folks, the most important thing about a police station is location, location, location.
When the site was selected several years ago as a replacement for the turn-of-the-century (20th century, that is) station in the heart of Hampden, its main virtue was said to be its accessibility.
Now that it's open, the question is, accessibility to whom? People with cars? Even then, the sign announcing its location is so understated that I drove right past it without realizing it was there.
Discussion of its out-of-the-way site was all but avoided during Friday's formal dedication of the station, which opened 18 months late.
The closest reference came when Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris noted that the roughly $5 million cost of the facility was the same as what it would have cost to renovate the 1899 police station at Keswick Road and 34th Street, just beyond The Avenue, Hampden's business district.
"This is a very nice facility," Norris told the assembled police and public works officials, politicians and smattering of community residents.
Mayor Martin O'Malley was more expansive.
"I think it'll be a welcoming place for all of the neighbors," he said. "It'll be a great place for community meetings. It's going to be an inviting place, an open place."
After the ceremony, however, O'Malley and Norris acknowledged the obvious: The location is less than ideal.
"Would I have put it in the middle of the woods? No. I would have put it in the middle of people," O'Malley said.
"But it wasn't my decision. A lot of things were decided before I became mayor. Things were already in motion."
Norris, in a separate interview, agreed.
"It wasn't my decision," he said. "I like police stations right in neighborhoods. They stabilize neighborhoods."
As someone who lives 6 1/2 blocks from the old Northern District station, I can attest to that.
It's not just that the police are close by if something happens; most officers, after all, are on patrol, not massed like an army, waiting to be deployed. It's the visible presence of the station, and of the officers, coming and going on their shift changes.
Admittedly, a lot of factors go into determining what makes a community vital. But it may not be just a coincidence that during the last decade the neighborhoods around the old Northern thrived while vast areas of the city deteriorated.
The Avenue reinvented itself with art galleries and eateries into one of the city's most thriving community commercial districts; property values in nearby Wyman Park are rising; and vacant buildings, like the closed Stieff Silver plant on Wyman Park Drive, don't stand empty long before they are bought and begin undergoing renovations.
All this is not sour grapes over the closing of the old Northern station, which may well have outlived its usefulness as a police station and is slated to be renovated into a bank branch and coffee shop.
Nor is it an attempt to reopen the debate over the desirability of relocating the Northern to a vacant building in the heart of Remington, a site championed by neighborhood activists under the battle cry "Cops in the 'hood, not in the woods" but rejected by the administration of O'Malley's predecessor in favor of the Cold Spring Lane site. (The Remington site is used by a police warrant apprehension task force, which provides some measure of police presence in the neighborhood.)
But with the new Northern in operation, it's difficult not to imagine what a new police station could have meant to some struggling neighborhoods within the district, like Govans or the area between lower Charles Village and Penn Station.
It's also hard not to think that the issue goes beyond that of a police station to a general policy of land use.
With thousands of vacant and abandoned structures, why put a public building on one of the few large undeveloped parcels? Why not assemble land in areas where no one wants to invest, and put public buildings there to spur redevelopment?
The point was not lost on state Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the veteran West Baltimore Democrat, who attended last week's dedication of the Northern District and afterward stood in the building's parking lot overlooking ... nothing.
"I better be nice," began Blount, who has represented the city in the General Assembly since 1971. "It's a nice building; it's functional.
"If I were starting from scratch, I can see a lot of wisdom in tearing down some areas with boarded-up houses and putting it in an existing neighborhood. The way we're going to reinvent the city is to tear down areas that are not regenerating themselves and put in something new."