The Lubbock City Council has changed course from what was sold three years ago as the plan for City Hall.
The end game in renovating the dilapidated Omni Building to become a new City Hall had been to free-up space for a new police headquarters.
Municipal Square has been the home of the Lubbock Police since the 1930’s. There are infrastructure issues, exposed electrical wires, elevators with a reputation of trapping people inside, a broken foundation, occasional flooding and cramped working conditions. On hot summer days, it’s not uncommon for the air conditioner to fail.
A month after the City Council purchased the crumbling downtown high-rise without a clear objective, the conversation fell on turning it into a new home for City Hall. This would free up the current City Hall at 1625 13th St. to create a new police department headquarters. City leaders had also discussed turning Citizens Tower into a new police department, but the police chief at the time didn’t think the 11-story building would work. Another discussion was to demolish Citizens Tower, but estimates were coming in at higher than $10 million just to get rid of it.
“It doesn’t matter if you agree or don’t agree with the purchase of (Citizens Tower), because it’s done, we own it. This council now needs to figure out the best use for it,” said then mayor Glen Robertson a month after the city purchased the building in November 2014. “I believe we need to push forward with staff’s recommendation to hire architects, to study the cost of remediation of all the mold and asbestos, the complete refurbishing of Citizens Tower, space utilization plans with the ultimate goal to move City Hall into that building. I then think we need to authorize the city manager to have the same firm do the same type of study on the building we’re sitting in tonight… to convert this building into a police station.”
That’s the path that council took. Votes were approved at later meetings to hire architects, remove the mold and asbestos, hire a construction manager and issue $62 million in bonds to renovate Citizens Tower. Construction on it could start as soon as this month.
But recently there’s been a new idea for police — one that involves building a new, smaller police headquarters accompanied by three substations spread across the city.
“The city is too big to run everything from one Taj Mahal, from one big hierarchical structure downtown,” Police Chief Greg Stevens previously said. “We’re out of touch. … If you live and work in the far reaches of the city, it’s inconvenient for you to come and interact with your police. We’ve got to decentralize and get out in the community.”
This direction was recommended by the facilities subcommittee at a council meeting in April. Now, four months removed, the majority of the council is voicing support for issuing new bonds totalling $60 million for these new facilities plus new structures for municipal court and a police property warehouse/crime lab.
The majority of the current council was not part of the first votes in this process. Those council members say they’re doing what they think is best. But there are three members who were on the dais when those first votes were cast, and all three are now in support of the new bond series for community policing.
How do they justify a change of mind? Each has a different focus, but mainly they’re on board with the police chief’s goal in the future of policing.
“Once the community policing was talked about by Chief Stevens, and we went out in the community to talk about it, remember everybody was saying, ‘yes, we need this,’ that changed the thought about police coming into the current City Hall,” said Mayor Pro Tem Latrelle Joy. “Honestly, times change.”
Councilman Jeff Griffith also said the council feels like the community has told them that they want more of a police presence and community policing is the way to go. He said there’s a concern about crime in this city, and rightly so. Community policing can significantly help neighborhoods, Griffith argued.
There’s also a financial reasoning for this new plan, and that’s what got Councilwoman Karen Gibson to change her mind. It wasn’t until the last council meeting that Gibson seemed on-board with the plan for police substations. The switch happened when the council began discussing how much it would actually cost to renovate city hall. That’s never been fully studied, but the estimate thrown out was it would cost more than $42 million — and that doesn’t include municipal court or a property warehouse.
Gibson said if this new project comes in less (or close to) the cost for renovating City Hall plus building the two other facilities, and there’s a new buyer lined up for City Hall, then she’s in support of this project. She said it would be irresponsible to leave the current City Hall abandoned.
“I feel better,” Gibson said after the council meeting Thursday. “It’s going to be a tax increase, and people need to know that. But either way it would be. There’s never been a council that wants to make that decision, it’s not a fun decision, but PD has got to get out of that building.”
Then there’s Citizens Tower. But despite what seems to be a change in step two of the projects, the three senior council members say they don’t regret purchasing Citizens Tower. They believe renovations would have happened even if police substations were a plan from the beginning.
“Remember, we had an albatross of a building that we couldn’t do anything with,” said Gibson. “The owner wasn’t going to do anything and it certainly wasn’t going to sell. We couldn’t bring it down for less than I believe $8 million, and I wasn’t going to have an $8 million green space downtown. That’s ludicrous. We had a plan, and it was a good plan. We will bring in LP&L and departments we’re renting properties for. It works; it’s a smart thing to do.”
Griffith is also arguing for the bigger picture, saying this project will be a catalyst for downtown redevelopment. Griffith pointed out that Lubbock isn’t home to many tall structures, and said the council saw an opportunity to rehabilitate one that’s been an eyesore for a long time.
Griffith said it’s also important to remember City Hall has been used since the 1960’s and the city has outgrown it. He said a large benefit to Citizens Tower is consolidating most city departments, which he said will save the city around $200,000 a year by reducing leases.
“I think it’s a historic move in the right direction. You’ll see that,” said Griffith. “By the way, we bonded that money with the lowest (interest) rate for the city in I think the past 40 years. And we didn’t raise taxes to do it. So how do you tell me this is not a good project, and a catalyst project for downtown redevelopment? How do you tell me it’s not wise that we’re going to be putting the LP&L building back on the tax role? Maybe City Hall too, we don’t know yet.”
Joy also said citizens will see a noticeable improvement in customer service coming out of city hall when departments all gets brought under one roof.
“I just… I just can’t get past people that put on their blinders and don’t want anything to happen, that want everything to stay the same,” said Joy. It can’t, it can’t stay the same. We’ve either got to grow and do better or we’ll end up with a downtown and a city that’s not in very good shape.”
To pay for the Citizens Tower project, the city sold about $63 million worth of Certificates of Obligation bonds in 2016. The Lubbock City Council unanimously approved a guaranteed maximum price that will keep them under that amount. Construction on the project is expected to start within the next month and be completed by May 2019.
As for the police station, the council told city staff to put a resolution on the council agenda for Aug. 24 that says the city council is pursuing a Public Safety Improvement Project in 2017. Mayor Dan Pope requested a period of time be set aside (potentially 45 days) that the council wants to use for hosting public hearings and to educate the public before voting on the bonds.