3 questions — and a few answers — about the looming $17M police headquarters building

photo by: Mike Yoder

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.

Building a $17 million police headquarters building is way above my skill level, but I do know that a project that large in Lawrence inevitably will create some questions and concerns. Those questions and concerns are starting to become more evident as the City Commission gets closer to deciding a site for the project — and possibly suspending the city’s traditional bidding process. Here’s a look.

• Do Lawrence residents trust the city to do big projects without going through a bid process? The answer back in 2013 was “no.” The city was beginning to build the recreation center at Rock Chalk Park, and the plan was to suspend the city’s normal bidding process in favor of a negotiated deal. Residents objected, and the City Commission ultimately used a bid process for the recreation center.

But now city staff members are floating the idea of doing large projects like the police headquarters through a process that doesn’t involve traditional sealed bids. There are several alternatives to the traditional sealed bid process. One is where you put out a request for architects and builders to submit proposals and qualifications. The city makes its decisions about who to use based on qualifications, references and other such factors. Before the project begins construction, the city and architects/builders settle on a price for the project. At that point, if surprises come up, the architects/builders bear some of the responsibility and costs in dealing with them. Under the standard bidding process, such surprises usually end up being the city’s problem to solve.

City Manager Tom Markus told me that is one of the aspects he doesn’t like about the traditional bid process. He thinks some of these alternative approaches allow for more collaboration between the city, the architects and the builders to ensure the project comes out the way everybody expected.

Certainly, such an approach has some advantages. But it seems there is a potential disadvantage to moving away from the sealed bid process. What happens when your architects simply produce an estimate that is too high? Does the city end up overpaying for a project?

Go back to the Rock Chalk Park project in 2013. The city had two estimates from architects for what it would cost to build the recreation center: One was $18.4 million, and the other was $20.7 million. But when the city went to bid the project, all the bids came in at $13.5 million or less. The winning bid was $10.5 million. The architects just plain missed. If the city is not going to take bids, it should figure out how to protect itself in those types of situations.

• Is the Overland Drive site the right place to build the headquarters? As our Sunday article reported, staff members are recommending the project be built on city-owned property at 5100 Overland Drive, which is behind the Walmart near Sixth and Wakarusa. The other finalist is a city-owned site at Venture Park on the eastern edge of Lawrence near the Douglas County Jail.

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Markus said one of the key attributes for the Overland Drive site is its proximity to the Investigations and Training Center near Bob Billings and Wakarusa. It is just a couple minutes drive between the two sites. Markus said that’s important because the ITC will continue to be used by the police department.
I’m not sure the public has fully grasped that fact. The city may spend $17 million to build a new police headquarters facility, but the patrol division and the investigations division are still going to be in separate buildings, at least initially. When the city proposed a $28 million police headquarters facility in 2014, that building would have housed all the divisions of the police department. That was a major selling point. Having patrol and investigations in separate buildings was tremendously inefficient, voters were told. But voters rejected a proposed sales tax to pay for the building.

This time there is no sales tax vote. The city will pay for the building through higher property taxes. But the price tag is smaller too. Thus, you don’t get as big a building. Markus has said he expects additional phases to be be constructed that would allow for patrol and investigations to be housed in the same building. But he offered no estimate on when that may happen. Until then, being close to ITC is important.

But there are some selling points for the other site near the Douglas County Jail. The biggest may be that it has greater potential to someday serve as a joint facility for the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Markus mentions such a joint facility occasionally, but I’m not sure there is really much likelihood of such cooperation.

County Administrator Craig Weinaug told me that he thinks it would be at least 20 years before the Sheriff’s Office would need to look for office space beyond its current home at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center near 11th and Massachusetts.

But he also said that a site near the Douglas County Jail, rather than in northwest Lawrence, would be preferable for any joint facility. That’s because the sheriff’s office doesn’t want to have its personnel spread out over three locations. It has to be at the jail, which it runs, and at Douglas County District Court, which it provides security for. A logical solution would be to build a police headquarters building at the site of the jail, but Weinaug said the 17-acre site doesn’t have enough room to accommodate both the jail and a police headquarters facility.

That may be true, but it is worth noting that an idea that was formed in the 1970s seems to be collapsing. Back then the city and the county saw a future where the police department and the sheriff’s office would benefit by being in the same building. The current Judicial and Law Enforcement Center was built. Conveniently, the courtrooms are located there too. The building’s size hasn’t kept up with the needs, but as we look toward the future, it seems the city and the county are struggling over how those two organizations can benefit by being together. It feels like a step backward.

• Has the police department outgrown downtown? Another possibility is that the new police headquarters could be built downtown, keeping it near the courts and the sheriff’s office, plus the patrol division would continue to have its office in the busiest area of our community.

Weinaug confirmed that the current Judicial and Law Enforcement Center really is designed so that another two to three floors could be built atop it. “That is not an urban legend,” Weinaug said. “It is absolutely true.”

You probably would have to build a parking garage in the lot next to the Judicial and Law Enforcement center, because parking already is very tight in the area.

Such a project, though, undoubtedly would be more complicated and maybe more expensive. But it is worth noting that it represents the type of infill development city leaders currently seem to favor over the type of greenfield development at the Overland Drive site.

I haven’t, though, picked up on any interest by city officials to seriously pursue a downtown project. Markus seems to favor a campus idea because it would be easier to expand in future years. However, if your concern is that the police department ought to have some sort of facility downtown, that still could happen. Markus told me he’s interested in exploring the idea of a downtown “substation” that would house a patrol group dedicated to the downtown area.

Plenty to keep an eye on, which is usually the case with a project of nearly $20 million.