A decision on an $8.75-million real estate deal to expand the footprint of city hall inside its existing building has been postponed by Bloomington’s city council.
What has been delayed until next week is a decision to approve the Bloomington redevelopment commission’s purchase agreement for the western part of the former Showers Brothers factory building that houses city hall.
It’s part of Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s plan to put both the city’s main police station and fire department administration in the same historic city hall building. The proposed move is part of a bigger plan estimated at over $30-million—which includes reconstructing the flood-damaged Fire Station #1 and remodeling Fire Station #3.
Wednesday’s vote, which was unanimous among the eight councilmembers present, came after more than two hours of deliberations.
Absent was Jim Sims, who in early December described as “a joke” a “Plan B” alternative, which involves just renovation of the existing 3rd Street police station.
The approval of the building purchase is part of the same agenda item as the ordinance that appropriates the proceeds of $29.5 million in bonds that have already been issued. Based on the wording of the bond issuance, the proceeds have to be used for public safety purposes.
Postponement came at the point in the meeting when Ron Smith moved an amendment that would remove from the appropriation ordinance the reference to the building purchase. The amendment would also prohibit use of the bond proceeds for purchase of the Showers building.
Based on their comments at Wednesday’s meeting and previous meetings, two councilmembers sound like they’re firmly in support of the Showers building purchase, three are firmly opposed, and three somewhat undecided, even if they’re leaning in one direction or another.
On Wednesday, two councilmembers appeared to be firmly in support of the Showers building purchase: Matt Flaherty, and Kate Rosenbarger.
At an early December city council meeting, Flaherty indicated support for the purchase. Flaherty said the universal opposition of rank-and-file police officers to the move, as measured by a survey, had to be understood in the context of the survey question, which did not provide information about the cost of alternatives. On Wednesday, Flaherty remained silent during the council’s deliberations.
Rosenbarger has previously indicated support for the purchase. On Wednesday, she did not speak during deliberations, except to say about the motion to postpone: “I’ve prepared some thoughts, but they are the same as my comments from the last two meetings.” She added, “So I don’t want to be redundant, and just say I support postponing, since we are one member short tonight.”
Smith, as the sponsor of the amendment to disapprove the Showers building purchase, can be counted as firmly against the purchase.
On Wednesday, Smith said two things bother him about the proposal. First, he said the purchase is “over-buying” the amount of square footage required to meet the space needs for police and fire. The proposed space for police and fire is around 34,000 square feet. The amount of space the city would be purchasing measures about 64,000 square feet.
The other factor cited by Smith is the fact that rank-and-file officers don’t think the Showers building would work as a police station—they point to constraints on ingress and egress.
To exit to the south, a patrol car would have to cross The B-Line Trail, head along 8th Street for a short bit, then take Rogers Street north or south. To the north, a patrol car would have to navigate the alley between the Showers building and the parking garage, then turn left at 10th Street, which jogs north before hitting Rogers Street.
Smith said, “I’m just gonna have a hard time ever supporting the Showers building as a police facility.”
Dave Rollo and Susan Sandberg are also firmly opposed to the Showers building purchase.
On Wednesday, Rollo said his preference is to renovate and add on to the purpose-built 3rd Street police station, because it would have greater durability in the event of a tornado or earthquake.
It’s also safer, from the perspective of protecting police officers, Rollo said. Rank-and-file officers have said the number of glass windows in the Showers building leave them feeling exposed.
Rollo pointed out that an initial estimate of the cost for the Showers renovation had included the cost of ballistic glass for the exterior windows—but ballistic glass had been removed from the proposed project. That means the cost of adapting the Showers building for use as a police station was made lower, in exchange for reduced safety for officers, Rollo indicated.
Sandberg put a lot of weight on the view of rank-and-file officers. “They are telling us they would rather stay where they are.”
The time to accommodate the need for growth is when there is a better alternative than the Showers building, Sandberg said. She pointed out that recruitment is an ongoing problem—the department is short 22 officers compared to the number called for in the city’s annual budget.
Isabel Piedmont-Smith seemed to indicate she’s leaning in favor of supporting the Showers building purchase for co-location of the police station and fire department administration. She led off her concluding remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, by saying, “Police is just one part of public safety. And to many people, it’s not even the most important part.”
In that context, Piedmont-Smith said, “The police, while vitally important, is just one way that the city of Bloomington can carry out its responsibility towards its residents, as far as public safety.”
For that reason, Piedmont-Smith said, “I think it is a good idea to have the police officers closer in proximity to the other departments of the city.”
Piedmont-Smith also pointed out that the temporary location of Fire Station #1, right next to the B-Line Trail, had not been a barrier to responses by fire engines to calls.
Piedmont-Smith also indicated a preference for the physical environment of the Showers building compared to the existing police station on 3rd Street. “As I walk through the…west Showers building, I am struck at how much nicer the environment is at west Showers.” She continued, “I know that it would be a big change for police officers to move there. And change is hard and change is scary.”
Piedmont-Smith added, “Not to say that police officers aren’t much braver than I am, but in general just human nature is that we don’t like change.”
Sue Sgambelluri echoed Piedmont-Smith’s sentiments about the quality of the Showers building space, praising owner CFC Properties for the maintenance and upkeep that has been done. “I think the care and attention that CFC has taken in both in the original restoration that they did almost 20 years ago, and in the care they have taken since then, is impressive,” Sgambelluri said. She added, “I think it is an impressive building that lends itself well to office space.”
Sgambelluri said she still has concerns about ingress and egress for the property. About the question of vehicular access, she said, “I’ve honestly not heard any compelling response about how we will address that issue.” Sgambelluri also expressed concern about a lack of adequate outreach to the immediately surrounding neighborhoods.
Sgambelluri also expressed qualified support for the idea of co-location of police and fire with other city departments. She said, “I think that the idea of having co-location of services, or a central area where citizens and residents can come and interact with their government in whatever ways that means, is also a very compelling vision.”
But the idea of co-location of fire and police with the mayor’s office comes with a drawback, Sgambelluri said. She asked, “In the case of a catastrophic event that affected this building, what would be our plan—if both the office of the mayor and the center of our government were impacted and public safety police and fire were impacted?” Sgambelluri repeated the question: “What is our plan?”
For Sgambelluri, the requirement that the bond proceeds have to be used for public safety complicates the issue. If the city buys the western part of the Showers building with the proceeds from this bond, that means the space has to be put to public safety use, she said. Forcing public safety uses of the space is something that causes Sgambelluri to wonder if that makes sense: “Public safety is too fundamental, it is too important and too central to what we do.”
In that regard, Sgambelluri was in part echoing a sentiment expressed by Rollo. What appeared to be driving the administration’s effort, Rollo said, was a desire to purchase the rest of the Showers building. “And the means to do it is simply to shoehorn the police and fire into it,” Rollo said. Rollo called that “backwards” when it comes to prioritizing a police facility.
The purchase of the western part of the Showers building per se, was something Steve Volan took up in his final remarks. “I want to see the Showers building acquired—I think I’d be great. I question whether we should do it with public safety dollars that are earmarked specifically for public safety.”
Volan also questioned the need to act urgently on the purchase. The purchase agreement between Bloomington’s redevelopment commission is contingent on approval of funding by the city council by the end of January.
But Volan asked, “While I’m compelled by the prospect of [acquiring the western part of the Showers building], I also don’t know that now’s the time.”
Volan continued, “Who else would buy it?” He added, “Office space is going begging post pandemic—there’s not much need for office space.”
Volan’s remarks did not seem to add up to a lean either way on his vote next week.
Volan said, “This is a complex situation. I’m not as confident as a couple of my colleagues about what the decision is.” That’s why he was in favor of postponement, Volan said. He added, “I certainly feel it should take more time.”
The council will take up the question of the Showers building purchase again at its Jan. 25 meeting.