As the Metropolitan Police Department prepares to move more than 1,000 employees to an old warehouse near Capitol Hill, residents are protesting a plan they see as hurried, foolish and detrimental to their neighborhood.
The D.C. City Council approved the signing of a 20-year lease in December that will allow several MPD branches to move into the Southeast building, which used to be a Washington Post plant. Now, with the city paying more than $6 million a year for the space and actively preparing for the move, residents wonder whether their complaints will be heard — specifically, that the new branch would cause parking problems, decrease police presence and clog streets.
“We need you to think about our needs,” Southeast resident Bill Phillips said at a community meeting Wednesday. “Taking 1,100 employees and dropping them in the middle of a residential area … it doesn’t belong where you want to put it. It doesn’t belong there.”
The abandoned plant is slated to house six MPD branches: the Evidence Control Branch, Special Operations Division, Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, Superintendent of Detectives Division, Headquarters offices and the 1st district station. Officials hope the consolidation of these divisions into one large building will streamline performance.
But consolidation also means many new people in the neighborhood, with hundreds of additional cars and increased security. It means moving the 1st district police station — which patrols Capitol Hill — from its current location at 415 4th St. SW to only five blocks away from a police substation. And it means leaving the Southwest neighborhood without any police station at all — a change Southwest residents adamantly oppose because of the area’s high crime rate.
But Assistant Chief Brian Jordan said the move won’t affect local policing, since officers spend their shifts in assigned areas of the city and report to the station only for roll call and shift changes.
“The impact of that move on the community is minimal, if any,” he said.
Many aren’t convinced. The issue is complicated by the plans for a forensics lab on the station’s current site. Years in the making, the $220 million lab would be the city’s first, and officials hope its completion will mean more closed cases and quicker lab turnaround. The city currently uses the FBI lab, negotiating over every piece of evidence sent and leaving thousands of cases unsolved because of a substantial backlog. City officials such as Office of Property Management Director Lars Etzkorn and At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson (D) aren’t about to reconsider its construction or its placement. By the beginning of 2009 — when the lab’s construction is supposed to begin — the 1st district station has to be relocated somewhere. And the Post plant has to house something.
“I think it’s critical that we move forward with the lab,” Mendelson said. “That has to happen and that means something’s going to happen to the 1st district.”
The 1st district station might not be moved directly from its current site to the Post plant because of construction at both sites, and the OPM already is looking for a temporary residence for the station. Some residents have suggested the station simply be moved back to its current site when the lab is completed in 2011, since the lab will not take up the entire lot. Others question whether putting everything into one big building so near the Capitol would create a terrorist target. But at Wednesday’s meeting, officials were noncommittal to such ideas, instead saying there would be other meetings and all ideas would be considered.
Etzkorn said the plan is not a “fait accompli,” but stressed that the Post plant was the best site for the consolidation because of its relatively low rent and uncommonly large space. Mendelson echoed the difficulty of simply dropping the plans altogether, mostly because it would be impossible to do so economically. Not only has the city signed a 20-year lease on the plant, but it’s also counting on the landlord to finance up to $100 million in renovations in return for eventually raising the rent to $15.7 million a year. The city also has an option to buy the building after five years.
“It’s less critical what goes into the building, but the building has got to be used,” Mendelson said, later adding: “225 [Virginia Ave. SE] is a large building in a city where the government is desperate to find, to buy, to acquire a large amount of space.”
Mendelson and Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells (D) said they believe problems such as parking and traffic can be solved. The OPM estimates that the building will need 648 parking spaces, 460 of which can be provided on-site. Of the remaining spots, 108 would be provided on a parcel slated to become a condo development, and 80 would be street parking. Many residents at Wednesday’s meeting objected to street parking, and Wells promised to keep them updated.
But several residents said they felt betrayed by their government and hoped the City Council would set things straight.
“This provided an opportunity for the executive branch to understand that when they don’t come to the citizens before decisions are made, they get in trouble,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Andy Litsky.