Moving day has been a moving target when it comes to combining Buffalo’s police and fire headquarters under one roof inside the former Michael J. Dillon Federal Courthouse on Niagara Square.
It was supposed to happen in September 2017.
Then it was set for this month.
Now the target date is late fall.
But not only has the move-in date changed, so has the price tag. The cost to convert the historic structure into Buffalo’s public safety campus has almost doubled from initial estimates. Instead of totaling about $3.5 million as first projected, the current tab is $6.22 million.
The Brown administration says there are good reasons for the delays and the escalating price to convert the former courthouse, which they call an ideal place for a public safety campus.
"An entire repurposing of a building is a big deal," said Steven J. Stepniak, public works commissioner. "We’re taking two of the most vital services in the city, combining them ... making sure it’s done correctly."
"It hasn’t been done in the city before, and we have to make sure everyone’s needs are satisfied," he added.
A big part of that is making sure the building has all of the facilities needed for the Police Department to pursue state accreditation, something critics have long called for. When the building was purchased in November 2016, accreditation was not yet on the table, Stepniak said.
Repurposing the Depression-era structure to bring its outdated systems up to "modern standards" and making sure the police portion meets accreditation requirements were some of the most challenging components of the rehabilitation and accounted for most of the extra time and cost, officials said.
"The sprinkler systems, electrical systems, HVAC have to be modified," Stepniak said. "When you take a building and repurpose its use, there’s always challenges about how things fit together in that building. You’re not starting from scratch. You’re taking parts and putting in internal workings."
More time, more money
When the City of Buffalo purchased the courthouse in 2016 for $1 from the U.S. General Service Administration, the Brown administration's early projections were $3.5 million for converting the building into a police and fire command center. At the time, city officials said the building – which opened in 1936 – was in excellent condition and would need only minimal work to update mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems, and to create new data storage and evidence rooms.
However, the construction bid came in at $4.88 million. Then, once crews got into the building, Stepniak said, "things revealed themselves" that pushed up the cost even more. For instance, about $200,000 was spent to repair damage that couldn’t be avoided during demolition, and another $140,000 was spent to upgrade pumps for the sprinkler system when they discovered the existing pumps were not adequate.
The heating and ventilation systems also had to be upgraded.
"When we opened up the HVAC system, we realized there had to be some upgrades to the system. We didn’t know until we tore it apart," Stepniak said. In addition to adding to the cost, the unexpected work also added to the timeline.
Once a working group of police, fire and public works representatives and contractors got a better understanding of the work involved, the group decided it was best to slow down and do it right, Stepniak said.
"It was not about deadlines. It was about functionality and getting the project done in the right way and accommodating accreditation," he said.
The current project cost is $6.22 million, the administration says, which includes $5.39 million for construction work and about $835,000 for furniture and other expenses.
Most of the conversion work surrounded the Police Department’s new evidence and property rooms, as well as the training academy and the detectives, said Capt. Jeff Rinaldo.
"We are moving the entire headquarters," he said.
The police department will occupy every floor of the seven-floor building except the fourth, which will be designated for the fire department, said Rinaldo. That’s because of the nature of police work and because most fire department personnel are in the fire houses, Stepniak said.
State accreditation for the Buffalo Police Department is something activists have been pushing for, and the state Attorney General’s Office also recommended it to ensure that officers get up-to-date training and follow best practices for evidence collection and documentation.
As the department goes through the accreditation process, officials learned there were certain requirements that the new headquarters must meet.
One difference is that in the existing police headquarters on Franklin Street, the evidence and property rooms are scattered throughout the building. In the new headquarters, there will be a bigger workspace for those employees and combined areas within the former courthouse to make larger evidence rooms.
In addition, the property and evidence rooms must have a double means of secure entrance.
"When you enter a property room, the outer doors lock and there has to be an interior locking system," Rinaldo said.
And if certain floors have windows that are accessible from the outside, the windows have to be caged, he said.
The converted headquarters also will have a state-of-the-art security system with access control, cameras and alarms.
"We have alarms installed now (in the existing headquarters) but with limited cameras and access controls. We don’t have double-locking systems," Rinaldo said.
All of that also added to the cost, officials said.
Given the requirements for state accreditation, it would have been more difficult and costly to retrofit the existing police headquarters building than to convert the former courthouse, Rinaldo said.
The conversion is nearly 90 percent complete, according to Stepniak.
"The heavy lifting has been done," he said, adding that the last task left to do will be cleaning up what has been "a major construction site."
Maintenance and operations costs of the new facility will be "very similar" to the older buildings, "maybe some slight adjustments," Stepniak said.
But even with the increased project costs, administration officials said the Dillon conversion is still cheaper than turning the vacant Kmart building on Broadway into the new public safety complex, as some Common Council members had suggested.
The Kmart building is too small and would have required more than $30 million in renovation and new construction, officials have said.
"It would have cost more to use that building," Stepniak said.
The plan is to sell the current headquarters building at 74 Franklin St., most likely to private developers, when the move is completed. The building has been appraised at $3 million.
City officials have said they are not planning to sell the current fire headquarters building at 195 Court St., behind City Hall, because it also contains a mechanical and repair garage and wood shop.
Members of Buffalo’s preservation community welcome the idea of repurposing the Dillon courthouse as a police and fire command center.
"I think it’s a wonderful idea to convert it", said architect Paul McDonnell, former chair of the city’s Preservation Board and president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture.
"Using a government building for government resources is good," he added.
Still, adaptive resuse can be challenging, and sometimes older buildings are more labor intensive in terms of maintenance. They require more care, McDonnell said.
But he’s optimistic.
"From what I’ve seen I think the city is trying to make a go of this. I really do feel they’re trying to do something good," McDonnell said.
Timothy A. Tielman, a former city Preservation Board member, also praised the conversion effort, but he had some reservations.
"I think it’s a good reuse of the building. Potentially, it’s good," said Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo.
But once the move is complete, Tielman wondered how focused the city will be on maintaining the existing fire headquarters building, which he described as a "nice art deco building."
"The fire headquarters is the only building standing in its entirety between Virginia Street and the Cobblestone historic district (other than) St. Anthony Church," Tielman said. "Every other building is gone. All the historic structures are wiped out."