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City studies plan for public safety campus

The pale brick building at the corner of Franklin and Church streets stands as a symbol – both good and bad – of the Buffalo Police Department.

The Art Deco-style Police Headquarters, built in 1937, is part of city history. The building has been viewed as somewhat dysfunctional as the department moved from the Depression Era of the 1930s to the modern era in policing.

Now, there is talk of selling the four-story building, as well as the nearby Fire Headquarters, circa 1930, and creating a new public safety campus that combines police and fire headquarters, as well as a space that could be a command post during bad weather or other emergencies.

The city is hiring a consultant to work with the fire and police commissioners to come up with an initial design plan – with cost estimates – for a joint headquarters and its location. There is no timeline for the project, but it likely would be completed during Mayor Byron W. Brown’s current term, which expires at the end of 2017.

Talk now centers on the Fillmore District as a good location, and some mention has been made of the parcel that once was home to Sattlers Department Store at 998 Broadway and later to a Kmart that closed in 2002. The site is about five acres and across the street from the Broadway Market.

But city officials emphasize that no specific location has been identified and that many sites are expected to be considered before a decision is made.

“We are looking at a variety of different options,” Brown said. “We are not locked into any one area or facility.”

Shifting police and fire administrative operations to a single building, more centrally located, would be aimed at improving police and fire services and also making both operations more efficient, Brown said.

A joint headquarters, for example, would be expected to combine some office functions now duplicated by separate police and fire headquarters, said Steven J. Stepniak, the city’s Public Works commissioner.

A public safety campus in the Fillmore area also could provide an economic catalyst for a section of the city with a high concentration of poverty and crime.

Just as significant would be the expanded presence of police coming and going from the building, creating a sense of increased security in surrounding neighborhoods, which have been ravaged by drugs and crime, city officials said.

“We have been looking at this for some time,” Brown said Tuesday. “We believe the timing is right to successfully move this forward.

“We believe we can produce greater efficiencies in crime fighting and delivery of public safety services through a more modern facility where design and spacing is properly allocated,” the mayor said.

Brown said his administration has been considering such a move since 2007, when Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, then a deputy police commissioner, first proposed the idea. Since then, Brown said, a string of activities occurred over the years – during which time the city’s financial situation has improved – leading to the current plans.

Buffalo several years ago conducted a citywide survey looking at the cost to repair and maintain the city’s inventory of 200 buildings, the mayor said. The analysis concluded that it made sense for the city to sell off some municipal buildings, Brown said.

Meanwhile, the city has continued researching how joint public safety campuses have worked in other communities, Brown said. The administration also has looked at the effect of such facilities out of the downtown areas.

“In some cases, it’s had positive impact on response time and reduction in crime, neighborhood stabilization and reduced costs and efficiencies in operations,” Brown said.

This type of strategy was considered successful in Chicago, where former Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed in the mid-1990s moving Chicago Police Headquarters out of that city’s downtown to the city’s Bronzeville section, a high-crime neighborhood.

When the five-story Chicago Public Safety Headquarters – home to both the city’s police and fire administrations – opened in 2000, crime dropped in the area, according to Frank Gross, a retired Chicago police commander.

“It was a stabilizing force,” Gross said

“I’ve seen the impact that these public works projects have had, and I think it’s a positive influence in these neighborhoods where crime has definitely gone down,” Gross said.

Some local developers agree. Last year, Chris Jacobs, the Erie County clerk who has been involved in development projects in the past, suggested moving the city’s public safety offices as well as nonprofit organizations to the East Side in hopes of jump-starting development.

“A public service campus,” Jacobs said.

Buffalo’s fire headquarters, at 175 Court St., currently houses part of the system used to provide heat to other city buildings, so selling that building would require addressing mechanical issues, city officials said.

Police Headquarters, at 74 Franklin St., is viewed as potentially valuable real estate given the current downtown market.

When there was talk of building a new police headquarters about 14 years ago, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo expressed an interest in buying and razing the structure to create an open space that would better showcase St. Joseph Cathedral on Franklin Street.

The cathedral is partially obscured from view to the north by Police Headquarters.

The diocese was asked Tuesday if there was still interest in acquiring the property. A spokeswoman said she would try and find out, but as of late Tuesday did not have an answer.

email: sschulman@buffnews.com and lmichel@buffnews.com