LAWRENCE – The city's outdated and overcrowded police headquarters would be replaced by a $72 million public safety complex serving the region and run by Northern Essex Community College under a proposal the city and college are shopping around Boston and Washington, D.C., in a search for funding.
Besides a new home for Lawrence police on the same Lowell Street site where the current headquarters opened in 1957, the 100,000-square-foot facility would provide a relief valve for the state's police academy, where the wait for a seat can stretch nearly to a year, and give the community college another foothold in the heart of the biggest city it serves.
College President Lane Glenn has been assembling – piece by piece - a tight, comprehensive campus in downtown Lawrence, where the school most recently opened a $27 million health and technology classroom building on Common Street last year.
Looking even beyond the regional public safety complex, Glenn said yesterday the college also envisions acquiring the property at Common and Hampshire streets, now the site of a U.S. Post Office branch, for further expansion. He said he also expects to sign deals shortly with two four-year colleges that would offer degrees in a building at 420 Common St., where the college already rents space for a bookstore, classrooms and offices.
“We realize it's a big project, it's an expensive project and it's a challenging budget year,” Glenn said about the proposed public safety complex, which would be the most expensive public building to be built in the city since the high school complex opened in South Lawrence in 2006. “(But) it's an incredible opportunity to take significant steps forward for first-responder training and toward economic development in Lawrence.”
The public safety facility would provide training for about 200 potential recruits seeking jobs with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well as private security companies, and also would allow the community college to expand the criminal justice program it already operates. The program now enrolls about 400 students, most of them part-time, which would expand to 600 if the complex is built.
The new facility would include a firing range for weapons training and a “situational training maze” that would simulate many of the conditions cops find on the street, such as a replica of a home that they could practice raiding.
The proposal for the joint city, state and college facility is detailed in an eight-week, $400,000 study by the state's Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which oversees the construction and management of state buildings. The study also considered other options for the Lowell Street site, including just replacing the police headquarters without the regional facility, at a cost of $46 million, or building the city police headquarters and the regional state facility next door to each other but as separate and disconnected projects, at a cost of $85 million.
The study did not reject or endorse any of the options outright, but its language clearly favors building the new headquarters for Lawrence police and the regional training facility jointly, which it said would be a “first-of-its-kind partnership.” It said the joint facility would improve the city's “public safety perception,” attract economic development and add educational opportunities in Lawrence, which it said has the lowest percentage of residents with college degrees in the state. Twenty-two percent of Lawrence adults have college degrees, according to the U.S. Census.
The study also used dire language to describe the condition of the city's 58-year-old police headquarters at 90 Lowell St., which it said poses “numerous operational, legal and security risks for its occupants and the adjacent neighborhood."
“The current 20,000-square-foot facility does not provide safe entries, proper intake areas, room for intelligence sharing and analysis, interview rooms and (has) undersized dispatch facilities,” the study said. “There is no ability to control access to the current building and its interior to protect visitors and workers. There is no space to properly secure evidence, control entrances to the building and effectively segregate weapons and ammunition. The current police headquarters provides no space for officers to train with handguns and practice personal defense.”
Mayor Daniel Rivera said the city would have difficulty paying the $46 million cost of a new police station on its own, given the debt it already owes. The city's total debt was not immediately available yesterday because the city does not publish a capital budget, but its operating budget this year includes $12.6 million in debt service.
“This is not just a Lawrence Police Department effort,” Rivera said. “This is a regional public safety training facility. That's the draw for the commonwealth.”
“We're not looking for a handout,” he added. “We'll have to pay our share.”
He said the city is lobbying for the facility with the state and federal representatives and senators who represent it.
State Rep. Frank Moran, whose 17th Essex District is wholly contained in Lawrence, said the project was on his list when he met with Rep. Brian Dempsey, the Haverhill Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, to discuss his priorities for the year.
“I'm trying to find every door I can knock on to get some funding to get this off the ground,” Moran said.
Daniel Zivkovich, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee, which would run the training center jointly with the community college, could not be reached Monday.
Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the training committee, would not comment on the proposal.
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