Renovation work, which is expected to cost at least $1.5 million, begins on the new police station in Allentown the first week of February, according to City Police Bureau Manager John Warren, executive assistant to Chief Nate Harper.
Giving a progress report on the much-anticipated move of the Zone 3 station from the South Side Flats to Allentown, Mr. Warren discussed this topic at length last week. He addressed a group of about 20-25 people who attended the monthly Zone 3 Public Safety meeting at the St. John Vianney Church Parish Center in Allentown on Jan. 21.
"I am more excited about this than I was about our new police headquarters," said Mr. Warren who served as the project manager for the city police headquarters building that opened on Western Ave. on the North Side in Dec., 2003.
Mr. Warren said the conversion of the former bank building at the corner of Warrington and Arlington avenues into a police station for the city's South/Hilltop neighborhoods will have "an immediate impact on the community and the police officers alike. I don't feel we are abandoning the South Side."
Mr. Warren explained that the antiquated building that currently exists as the Zone 3 station (that is shared by the city firefighters along 18th Street) would have been "too costly" to renovate.
According to a report by a local daily newspaper, the city has been ordered to correct or vacate the South Side station since a July inspection by the state Department of Labor and Industry found seven significant violations of health and safety rules.
Every one of the South Side residents attending the Zone 3 meeting last week agreed with Mr. Warren that the current location of the police station is inadequate. He characterized the facility as being "dingy to the 100th power."
The new facility will have state-of-the-art communications equipment, exercise equipment, meeting-room facilities, etc.
"A $1.5 million budget is not a lot to work with for a project of this magnitude," Mr. Warren said.
However, he is confident the renovation, contracted to take no more than 60 days, will be on schedule and within the budget. The police station should be fully operational by mid-April with an open house for the public expected to be conducted sometime that month, according to Mr. Warren.
Bids were accepted and awarded to a general contractor and four subcontractors last month with a series of project meetings scheduled among these companies with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, City Council and other city entities and officials.
When Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced last July at an Allentown news conference that the police station was moving a little more than one mile up the hill, the change was expected to take place Jan. 1. However, because the former bank building (used as a youth hostel 2000-03) did not meet federally-mandated handicap access requirements, a state Accessibility Board variance was needed before the process could begin for
renovating the building for public safety use.
The variance was granted in September, allowing that some rooms used only by police remain inaccessible by wheelchair. The city is also buying neighboring properties near the new police station to boost the number of parking spaces to the amount they are legally required to have.
There will not be adequate parking attached to the station when it opens, but the police bureau expects to have that remedied by the fall, if not sooner, according to Mr. Warren. The Zone 3 station must provide at least 68 parking spaces for its staff. This includes adequate parking for the personal vehicles used by officers for commuting to their job as well as for city police cars and other public safety vehicles.
A recently repaved lot on Arlington Avenue near the station should hold about 15-20 cars. There are also plans to designate 12 spaces on the street near the station for police-use only. Property across the street from the building will also be leased for 10 spaces when the building opens.
Deputy Public Works Director Mike Gable told council that his department met with Department of Labor and Industry officials yesterday, and will try to provide required air quality and pest control reports by Monday at the current Zone 3 station. The city expects to get a several-month extension of an about-to-expire deadline to show that other fixes have been made.
The station move has been controversial because of South Side residents who are not happy to see it leave their neighborhood and feel the police don't do enough now to curb the rowdiness by hundreds of bar patrons on Carson Street every weekend.
The controversy also stems from the Ravenstahl administration's decision to run the transformation of the former youth hostel into a police station through the URA, rather than city government, which may complicate matters.
The station shift was Mr. Ravensthal's response to violence on the hilltop above the South Side. A fatal shooting in November at Longo's Bank Cafe, next door to the would-be station on Warrington Avenue, served as a reminder.
The large windows on the first floor of the building will be replaced by brick walls for security reasons. Instead of a "fortress-like" edifice to the station, artwork will be placed over the outside brickwork for a more aesthetic appeal. Also, the transoms to the building will be left above the current windows to allow natural light to enter the first floor lobby.
The public will only be able to access the building from the Arlington side where they will enter a foyer. If they want to enter beyond that point, they will have to gain security clearance through being "buzzed-in" or escorted by a police officer to wherever they need to go in the building.
New locker rooms and rest rooms will be installed in the building to meet governmental standards.
The fourth floor will have a public meeting room. The facility will also house an office for two investigators from the City Building Bureau Inspection department (BBI) who will meet with the police to identify the neighborhood trouble spots.