Norwich report recommends building police station on grounds of former school

Norwich - The city should build a 51,000-square-foot police station on the grounds of the former William A. Buckingham School, but should conduct an extensive public education campaign before seeking voter approval, the Police Station Study Committee said in its final report submitted this week.

A copy of the report is on file at the city clerk's office.

The committee was established a year ago after voters in November 2012 overwhelming defeated a $33 million new police station using the former Sears building and several surrounding downtown properties.

The committee considered 30 different sites ranging from city property to viable businesses to places of worship. Nineteen sites were eliminated immediately - including the former YMCA building on Main Street - because they did not meet the minimum 2.72 acres needed or were located in a 100-year floodplain.

Using four weighted ranking criteria, the 4.2-acre former Buckingham School site scored 3.8 on a scale of 1 to 5, with a former auto dealership at 390-420 W. Thames St. coming in second at 3.6 points and the New London County Mutual Insurance building atop a steep hill at 101 High St. coming in third.

City-owned property would be less expensive than buying out a viable business, but site cost would be just a small portion of the project total cost, the report said. Construction of the building alone is expected to top $19 million.

The former Buckingham School property is located between Washington and Cedar streets, abutting residential Greene Avenue on one side. The property has a popular playground and basketball court at the lower level on Washington Street and a steep hill used for sledding.

The committee recommended building the police station on the lower Washington Street portion and moving the playground equipment and basketball court to the top of the hill on Cedar Street.

"We believe that any neighborhood concerns regarding impact can be alleviated utilizing this location," the report recommendation said. "Many of the committee members are also parents and consider it important to preserve the basketball court and playscape."

Mayor Deberey Hinchey said Tuesday she was impressed by the committee's extensive work but is not yet ready to endorse either the project or the Buckingham site.

Hinchey said since the committee discussed the Buckingham site at recent public meetings, she has received calls from several neighbors expressing concerns about the residential location.

Hinchey and City Manager Alan Bergren recommended the study be forwarded to the City Council Public Safety Committee.

The Police Station Committee recommended forming a building committee as the first step and hiring an architect to design a 51,000-square-foot facility based on the study committee's updated and scaled-back station needs assessment. The building committee should obtain construction price quotes and launch a public education campaign before seeking voter approval.

"The Police Station Committee considers the development and implementation of a dynamic communication plan, which educates and engages the public on the need for a new police station, to be equally as important a determining a new police station site and facility size," the report said in its opening sentence. "It is essential that the public be given thorough, factual information so they understand the modern requirements that drive an increase in the police station size over the current police station."

Police Chief Louis Fusaro welcomed the committee's report and its unanimous recommendation that the city move forward "with a sense of urgency," as the report concluded.

"We're getting to the point of critical mass," Fusaro said. "We're really in a difficult situation with lack of space."

c.bessette@theday.com

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