Progress inches along on police HQ

The mostly unmarked façade of the Baton Rouge Police Department’s new headquarters makes for some comical mix-ups.

A visitor recently showed up with mysterious “lab samples” likely meant for the medical professionals who once populated the former Woman’s Hospital campus.

Another time, a woman was found inside the department’s parking garage examining a sign labeled with physicians’ names and now-inaccurate office locations.

“My friend is supposed to be in labor,” the woman, unaware the hospital had moved down the highway, told Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, the police spokeswoman.

From the outside, the site of the parish’s long-awaited public safety complex on the corner of Airline Highway and Goodwood Boulevard does not resemble a law enforcement hub. Signs are scant. If not for the police cars usually parked out front, the public would have little indication of the Police Department’s presence inside.

“Hopefully, construction will start here soon,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said. “And we can get the renovations done and get some signage up and actually look like a police department.”

More critically, however, the department is still waiting for renovations inside the former hospital. A lot of work remains. Holes in the floor of a former dentist’s office created by uprooted chairs need to be filled. Numerous walls need to be knocked down and rearranged. And then there’s the unusual problem of an abundance of water faucets.

“There are sinks in every room,” Dabadie said, pointing out the many patient examination rooms in need of extensive demolition work before they can be properly repurposed by the Police Department.

In December, the chief and his staff became the first department personnel to move into the new headquarters. Other divisions have trickled in behind them, including the accounting and legal divisions, computer operations, and most of the administration and bureau commanders, Dabadie said.

Plans call for everyone at the department’s 1st District Precinct annex off Plank Road and the entire 3rd District Precinct on Coursey Boulevard eventually to move into the Airline Highway complex. But before that can happen, officials want to clear out the department’s old headquarters — a 75-year-old former school for the deaf on Mayflower Street near downtown.

The department’s traffic and criminal records, supply, internal affairs and alarm enforcement divisions are among the unlucky few still waiting for the green light to vacate the old headquarters, a decrepit building the BRPD has called home for a quarter of a century.

“They are not happy,” Dabadie said. “But they understand it’s a work in progress.”

And the progress has been slow.

About six years ago, the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Safety Complex was a nearly $90 million idea — a dreamy concept of consolidation, cooperation and construction.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Baton Rouge Police Department, both supporters of the proposal at the time, would work under the same roof. The shared facility, to be built near the Metro Airport, would be state-of-the-art — a first-class policing and training complex that both agencies described as a much-needed upgrade from their respective aging headquarters.

But since then, much has changed.

The concept was part of a $900 million bond proposal by Mayor-President Kip Holden that was rejected by voters in 2009. A similar nearly $750 million bond proposal, which included plans for a new parish prison and public safety complex, was rejected by the Metro Council in 2011.

The Sheriff’s Office about a year ago moved into a spacious building right by the airport and across the street from the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. They have no plans to move.

Meanwhile, exactly who will join the Police Department at what eventually will become the public safety complex remains up in the air, said William Daniel, the mayor’s chief administrative officer.

“We’re trying to be very thoughtful about who goes in there,” Daniel said.

The Metro Council recently approved a $4.6 million bond issue to cover the building’s renovation costs. In addition, the council allocated $500,000 this year and $200,000 last year to the project, said Marsha Hanlon, the city-parish’s finance director.

The city-parish to-date has budgeted $16.3 million for the purchase and initial renovations of the complex, Hanlon said.

“We’re moving at the pace of government,” Dabadie said. “And we’re going to continue to move at that pace. And we’re going to get through it, and this is going to be a nice facility once it’s all completed.”

Jim Frey, the city-parish’s chief architect, said the primary goal now is to clear out the department’s old headquarters on Mayflower Street. The hope is to move everybody before the end of the year.

At this point in 2013, the plan was to have everyone from Mayflower in the new headquarters by now.

Among the setbacks was the installation of components to the new headquarter’s air conditioning system in order to cut back on wasted energy. An issue with the bidding process to hire a contractor also slowed down progress, Frey said.

Phase one renovation construction is scheduled to begin in the coming weeks. Once it does, it is expected to last 210 days, putting a conservative completion date near the end of February, Frey said.

Once the work is done, police personnel at buildings other than the old headquarters should be able to move into the public safety complex.

“It’s about turning those enclosed exam rooms and offices into open-plan detectives bureau rooms,” Frey said. “There will be a lot of interior demolition.”

Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report. Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.