NORTH SMITHFIELD – Construction of a brand new building to house the North Smithfield Police Department would cost just $800,000 more than renovation of the existing building on Smithfield Road, according to a presentation this week by a firm hired to look at the project.
Representatives from Tecton Architects presented a report on the issue to the Town Council this week, estimating that with all costs included, a complete renovation of the structure that once held the Bushee School to create a modern police station would cost $17.5 million. Operations and maintenance of such a repurposed structure, they said, would cost the town another $85,500 annually.
Construction of a new facility, including demolition of the current police headquarters, meanwhile, would cost $18.3 million with $52,225 in annual maintenance, according to the group.
The presentation marks just the latest news for a project that’s been under discussion for more than a decade. The town had planed to renovate the police facility with the help of a $12 million bond approved by voters in 2014, but officials ultimately halted the project under former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, stating that the budget was inadequate for the work needed.
According to Councilor Paul Vadenais, who also serves on the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force, a volunteer board charged with overseeing the project, $1.3 million remains in an account for police headquarters construction or renovation. MBRTF members have long stated that a new station is needed, and after a heated meeting where some residents questioned the need for spending on construction of a new building last year, the Town Council voted to once again hire a firm for estimates.
Tecton was chosen for the task in January, and put together the latest estimates working strictly with input from local law enforcement officials.
“If we went over it in all its detail we’d be here for many hours,” said Tecton Principal Jeff McElravy of the report Monday night.
The firm, which McElravy said has been designing public safety facilities for about 20 years, developed two conceptual designs, with one utilizing the current structure, and another building from scratch on the same property. He noted that looking at other potential parcels to build police headquarters was outside the scope of Tecton’s work, and that police officials have indicated that the current location is preferred.
All in town seem to agree that current facilities are inadequate, and McElravy presented the latest list of reasons: the station has only one point of egress and lacks an area for prisoner processing. The building has mismatched windows, signs of rusting, and peeling paint, and the finishes throughout are hazardous or damaged – likely containing asbestos. The building is not ADA accessible and holding facilities are considered unsafe by modern standards, with doors that swing inward that a prisoner could potentially barricade.
“As the facility stands, it no longer suits the needs of the department,” McElravy said. “There’s concerns about officer health and safety.”
But perhaps the most concerning, he said, is the building’s exterior, where water is infiltrating the structure, causing roof failure and, “significant,” risk of collapse of front facade.
“There is concern about the stability of the exterior veneer of brick,” McElravy said.
Tecton’s design envisioned additions to the building to create more space as part of a potential renovation. Drawbacks, McElravy said, include spatial challenges and the fact that the project would require temporary relocation of police operations. The location of dispatch would be inconvenient and isolated, parking could still be an issue, and the department would have to rely on costly mutual aid for prisoner detention.
“From a cost savings standpoint we’re reusing an asset you’ve already got,” said McElravy, adding that such savings would be, “modest.”
A new station, meanwhile, could be built while the department continued operations in the current structure, and would be constructed to require less space. And due to decreased costs for things such as fuel, “it is a savings in operations annually,” he said.
“Tecton feels that the advantage of the new construction from a programatic and functional standpoint, from a building envelope standpoint, from the condition of giving the community a brand new building that is in full compliance with the current building codes… it was our recommendation that you should consider the new construction option,” McElravy said.
“The codes have changed a lot,” he added. “You would get a much more resilient building.”
Town Council President John Beauregard was first to react to the estimates.
“That’s a boatload of money and I don’t know how that’s going to fly with voters,” Beauregard said.
Town officials had imagined less than half the costs in earlier estimates, but McElravey noted that COVID-19 has caused a spike in construction costs.
“We need to continue to watch what’s going on in the marketplace,” he said. “It’s a volatile time to be predicting construction costs.”
Vadenais noted that Tecton’s designs are conceptual, and were put together without input from the council.
“We didn’t want any input in that,” he said of the initial estimate. “We can lower the square footage and get a different number.”
The councilor noted that every $11,000 spent currently equates to one cent more on the tax levy.
Councilor Kim Alves questioned why construction costs were much less for other projects the firm has worked on.
“None of the buildings that I worked on have a municipal court,” said McElravy, adding that many also did not require demolition or temporary housing of operations during construction.
Councilor Claire O’Hara said she supports constructing a new building.
“Do it now, do it right and do it new,” O’Hara said.
“I think this is the move we need to make,” he said. “The reality is you may not have five more years in that building. That building is close to condemnable.”
Vadenais said that anyone who questions the need should tour the town’s current police facilities.
“Once they see it, they’ll understand,” he said.
“It’s shocking,” agreed O’Hara.
Ezovski was among those in the public to comment.
“The extent to which it would cost to renovate just underscores – we can’t kid ourselves,” Ezovski said. “We’ve got a real challenge that needs to be met.”
Public Works Director Ray Pendergast questioned if the project could be tied into another infrastructure improvement, such as the ongoing effort to find uses for the former Halliwell Elementary School.
“I just don’t want to be shortsighted,” Pendergast said, noting that the town also has other needed projects, such as updates to fire stations and schools.
No votes were taken at the Monday night meeting and the project is expected to come back before the board at a later date for further discussion.
Beauregard noted that whether through renovation or new construction, something will soon need to be done.
“We definitely need a new police station,” said Beauregard. “Everybody agrees with that – there’s no question.”