Raleigh council approves public safety center

ccampbell@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

— City leaders voted Tuesday to move ahead with a scaled-down public safety center off Capital Boulevard while striking the controversial Lightner Center tower from budget documents.

The Raleigh City Council approved the latest designs for the 911 and emergency operations center known as the Critical Public Safety Facility. Construction on the $71.1 million, 100,000-square-foot building could start by summer at the corner of Raleigh Boulevard and Brentwood Road, just outside the Beltline.

The nondescript three-story facility is a far cry from the 17-story downtown Lightner Public Safety Center, which would have housed police and fire headquarters as well as emergency management. The cost of building the tower, estimated at about $175 million, divided the council, and the tower was ultimately dropped. The city’s former police headquarters sits vacant on the Lightner Center site.

As the council approved funding for the smaller operations center, it drove the final nail in the coffin for the Lightner Center: deleting the $207.5 million still directed to the project in the city’s long-term construction budget.

“It’s just one of those cleanup items for the amount of debt that’s on our books,” said Perry James, the interim city manager.

James said the cheaper facility is well within Raleigh’s debt capacity. Architect Clymer Cease showed his designs for the building, which will have a heavy emphasis on security for what he called “the critical minds and brains of the city.”

The first floor will house the emergency management office, with a small press room to hold news conferences during a crisis. The public entrance for media and other visitors will be separate from the fenced-off employee entrance.

Upstairs, the traffic control center that adjusts rush-hour stoplights will share space with computer servers on the second floor. The 911 call center will be on the third floor with an open floor plan and high ceilings. Opponents of the Lightner Center had feared that a high-rise 911 center could be vulnerable to terrorism; the operators currently work in the basement of City Hall.

Backup power systems are built in to ensure the facility never goes dark. The building also can handle hurricanes and tornadoes with winds of up to 140 mph.

“We went back and strengthened the steel of the building,” Cease said.

As the plans took shape, the center’s price tag increased slightly from $69 million to $71.1 million, which James attributes to rising costs in the construction industry.

When then-City Manager Russell Allen first floated the alternative to the Lightner Center, he said the fire and police departments could eventually move to the Brentwood Road site as well. But Cease determined that a police station there isn’t feasible and described the property as “tight.”

The future home of Raleigh police command remains uncertain as the department remains in temporary quarters on Six Forks Road.

The Critical Public Safety Facility is scheduled to open by January 2016.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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