Download renderings of the Lightner Center (PDF, 1.5 MB)
Download 2008 Raleigh City Council presentation for the Lightner Center (PDF, 4.8 MB)

If they build itthe 17-story Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Centerwill Raleigh voters come to the polls with pitchforks at the next election? Or will they instead come to share Mayor Charles Meeker’s view that the building is necessary, long overdue and that “we just need to get rolling”?

That’s the political conundrum Meeker and City Manager Russell Allen tossed the City Council this month when they put forward the Lightner Center as part of a capital-spending plan with a possible 3-cent property tax hike attached.

The cost of the Lightner Center, designed to house the administrative offices of the police, fire, telecommunications and emergency management departments, is estimated at $205 million ($140 million for the building itself; the rest for equipment and furnishings). The amount is down from an earlier $226 million estimate, Allen says, based on lower construction costs in today’s depressed market.

Four other projects that move most of the public works and sanitation departments from a jammed downtown location to new district sites carry a combined $250 million price tag.

Hurry up and say yes, Meeker and Allen advised, before interest rates increase and Raleigh loses the chance to borrow almost a half-billion dollars on the cheap for projects we’ve been planning for years.

No, wait, said five of Meeker’s seven council mates. It’s a great time to borrow, but with double-digit unemployment and everybody scrounging for money, it’s a terrible time to spendor to hit people with a property tax increase.

Twice in January the council postponed a decision. Meeker wants the council to make up its mind at its Feb. 2 meeting. If it does decide, it would likely vote no.

Meeker’s push for approval split his Democratic allies: Councilors Mary-Ann Baldwin and James West endorsed the plan, saying it will create much-needed construction jobs; Councilors Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson didn’t endorse it because it would raise taxes. Councilor Nancy McFarlane, an independent who generally supports Meeker, joined Crowder and Stephenson on the fence, as long as the tax hike was part of the plan.

The two newly elected council members, Republican John Odom and independent (but GOP-backed) Bonner Gaylord, were also unconvinced. Odom opposed any tax hike. Gaylord, who works for developer John Kane as general manager of North Hills, questioned the location, size and cost of the Lightner project and the wisdom of tearing down the existing police department building on Nash Square to make room for it. He called the Lightner “a Taj Mahal.”

Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope’s call for a public referendum on the Lightner project underscored the political dilemma the Democrats face: They all agree that a new public safety center is needed, but most of them think that if the 17-story version unveiled by Meeker and Allen were put to a public vote, it would fail.

For McFarlane, who is contemplating a run for mayor next year when Meeker is expected to step down, the fact that the Lightner project is in trouble, despite the obvious need for a new public safety center, is evidence that city officials aren’t communicating well enough with their constituents.

However, McFarlane doesn’t favor a referendum. “I always want to know what the public thinks, and I want the public’s support,” she says. “But they elect you to decide.”

But even if a referendum isn’t required, McFarlane adds, city officials should act as if it were. “We need to tell the public what’s going on in a clear way, with a consistent message … if this had been planned to go to referendum,” she continued, answering a question, “it would have been a completely different process.”

Instead of a campaign for public support, however, the process that was used was more akin to what would occur in a corporate boardroom.

Allen and top city officials, including the police and fire chiefs, have been discussing the need for a new facility “for many years,” according to Allen. And every step of the way, as they moved it from concept to fruition, they consulted the council and got its approvalin public.

They considered different sites, Allen said, before settling on the plan to tear down the existing police department building, which is obsolete. (Built in 1959, it was originally the city hall.) They hired an architect. They hired a contracting firm to work with the architect as construction manager. They named it for Clarence Lightner, Raleigh’s first and only African-American mayor.

All of this was done at public meetings. But it went largely unnoticed, except briefly in mid-2008 when the name was chosen and when Crowder suggested that, instead of tearing down the police building, the new center could be put in what was then “the hole in the ground” on Hillsborough Streetthe site of a developer’s failed high-rise on city-owned land. (It has since been filled in and is a parking lot leased by Campbell Law School.)

Crowder’s proposal went nowhere, and with Meeker in the lead, the council purchased two buildingsone on Six Forks Road, the other on Cabarrus Street near the Convention Centerto house police operations while the new center was under construction.

The only decision left hanging in ’08 was the timing. The three holdouts nowMcFarlane, Crowder and Stephensonwere clear back then that they wouldn’t support a tax increase to finance construction if the economy was still in the dumper.

But as Allen says, “until somebody realizes they have to pay for something, it doesn’t get anyone’s attention.” So the Lightner Center remained on the drawing boards but largely unnoticed until a month ago. That’s when Meeker decided it was time to vote, and Allen presented the architect’s plan for a 17-story tower in a package with the other $250 million worth of projects.

Only half of the 3-cent property tax hike is for the Lightner Center, and even that can be postponed for up to two years, through fiscal 2011-2012, Allen says. And Meeker, facing the prospect that the center project will die, is floating the idea of raising fees on other developments to help offset the cost.

McFarlane now says she’ll vote yes only if the project can be built with no tax hike for at least two years. Crowder and Stephenson want no hike for as long as it takes the economy to turn around.

Meanwhile, Crowder and Stephenson, both architects, are studying the plan with an eye toward reducing either the size or the cost of the building. Crowder questions the need to house all of the police and fire departments’ administrative personnel in the same “hardened, secure building” that’s required to protect all of the city’s information and telecommunications technology and emergency management facilities.

Crowder thinks splitting the two functions with police detectives, fire inspectors and their support staffs housed in less expensive district officesmay be a better way to go. “Would it be better? We’re asking the question,” he said.

“I do recognize the need to upgrade our facilities,” Crowder said. “And I don’t want to be penny-wise and dollar-foolish. If we’re going to build it, it [must] meet the needs of the city for years to come.

“I’m also cognizant of the current economic circumstances, with people out of work and small businesses struggling to keep their people employed,” he went on. “This is probably the hardest decision the council’s had to make in many years, and I think we’re all torn.”