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Editorial: Plan for a central police, fire operation will be a positive move for downtown

Turning the former Michael J. Dillon federal courthouse, across Niagara Square from City Hall, into Buffalo’s public safety complex will return a historic building in a prominent location to use.

The move will consolidate police and fire operations and some of the city’s data operations, possibly as soon as September 2017.

Police headquarters at 74 Franklin St. is expected to be sold. A private developer with the right vision could rehab it to accommodate the growing interest in living, working and playing downtown. The fire headquarters building, behind City Hall at 195 Court St., will remain in city hands.

The three buildings date from the 1930s and are all part of the city’s rich history. The seven-story Dillon courthouse, encompassing 180,950 square feet of sandstone and steel, has been vacant since November 2011, when the Robert H. Jackson Courthouse opened on Niagara Square.

The Art Moderne property is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The consolidation of police and fire services there will represent a significant advance in efficiency.

While reuse of the Dillon courthouse will be a significant boost for downtown, choosing that site is a setback for a distressed East Side neighborhood.

Residents there petitioned the city and spoke to the Common Council in an effort to convert the old Kmart building at 998 Broadway into the public safety campus. The area could have used the stabilizing presence that police and fire employees naturally bring.

Unfortunately, it would have been cost prohibitive for the city to go in that direction. As The News reported earlier this month, converting the former Kmart would have required extensive work costing as much as $25 million to $30 million.

Putting police and fire headquarters in the Dillon courthouse comes with a much lower price tag. Mayor Byron W. Brown included $1.9 million in his 2017 capital budget for the first phase of the upgrades, a big piece of the estimated $3.5 million the city plans to spend.

The old courthouse needs updates to its mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, and space for evidence storage and other uses. Still, rehabbing the Broadway site would be much more involved.

Breathing new life into a Depression-era courthouse and police station will allow two critical agencies to work while freeing up another building for development.

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