Photo: Belmont Police Chief Richard McLaughlin in the hallway that serves as a booking area.
When the Belmont Police Department Headquarters opened in 1931, it was a modern marvel among police stations in Greater Boston, a spacious, three-level facility with an indoor shooting range, a full-service garage, and plenty of room to allow officers to go about their job of keeping residents safe.
But in its ninth decade, the now threadbare building at the corner of Pleasant and Concord Avenue is not just on its last legs; it’s down for the count. Age has caught up with the landmark building across the street from Town Hall, and there’s not much time remaining to find a solution.
“It has served the town well, but it hasn’t kept pace with the times or technology,” said Police Chief Richard McLaughlin last month. “It can’t get any better, and that’s the reality.”
While the deteriorating condition of the building has been a concern for the past 20 years – at one point, the building leaked so freely that during torrential rains streams of water would collect on the walls – a likely solution will come before a Special Town Meeting tonight, Monday, June 13 as the members vote to accept or reject the conveyance from the state the former incinerator site on upper Concord Avenue.
For police leaders, a positive result on tonight’s vote could be the first step in locating a new police station “and that is something we would like to build on,” said McLaughlin.
A tour of the station puts into stark focus the challenges facing the personnel who work in a structure opened when Herbert Hoover was president. Around every corner and cranny, in antiquated rooms with Depression-era push button light switches and every spare space, the business of modern law enforcement is running headlong into an intractable past.
The dual liabilities of a cramped working environment (the station is about 15,000 square feet) and an inefficient layout has created a hodgepodge of competing uses. Utility closets are stuffed with boxes of paperwork that the Department are mandated to have on hand while the booking area was cobbled out of a hallway. The wiring and connections that run the department’s communication system are jerry-rigged in a web of cables in a small basement enclave while the evidence locker doubles as storage space for bottled water. It’s a scene only a hardcore hoarder would appreciate.
Personal space: Nil
Caught in the middle are those who work at the facility. Personal space is next to nil for officers as detectives who are located on the second floor (accessible only by a single staircase in violation of federal and state access regulations) are cheek-to-jowl requiring them to leave the room to make phone calls. The men’s changing room is cramped with a feel of a junior high school locker room.
But it’s the place reserved for female officers – never imagined by the architects who designed the building – that is the greatest cringe-worthy space as the women are squeezed into a rabbit hutch – part storage area, changing room, bathroom facility all in one location – about the size of the men’s bathroom.
McLaughlin said a recent updating of the public area through the front door has hampered this efforts to impress on the town the department needs a new station house.
“People come see the lobby and say ‘what’s the problem?’,” said McLaughlin, as he walks around tires placed on in a hall in the basement.
“[The public] don’t understand the operational challenges that we deal with every day,” he noted.
While much of the problems lead to a discomfort for personnel, the building’s lack of modern public safety infrastructure has real world implications such as when a person is “booked” in the building.
In a contemporary station, a police vehicle enters a secured enclosed area called a “sally port” where the officer will first ensure their weapon and keys before taking the prisoner in the building, removing any temptation to escape or turn on the officer.
But due to the finite parking area in which the building it situated, “we don’t have that luxury,” said James MacIsaac, Belmont’s assistant police chief, demonstrating to a visitor how an officer must escort a prisoner to the station from the parking lot. It is at that point when some arrestees will decide they no longer want to be going to jail.
“And we had them bolt out to Belmont Center,” said McLaughlin.
Outdated infrastructure places officers, public in potential danger
While the image of a person with their hands cuffed behind their backs running across Leonard Street with officers in hot pursuit may be seen as a humorous event, the lack of up-to-date facility could place officers, the public, and the prisoner in a potentially dangerous position.
Assistant Chief James MacIsaac said the police department’s needs are similar to those of the Belmont Fire Department that after decades of effort were successful in building two new fire houses ten years ago, but with one important caveat.
“They were not taking civilians into their buildings. They absolutely need the buildings, but we are totally different; we are storing evidence, we have firearms, and we store drugs. We are responsible for the safety of people we bring here and the current building puts all that in jeopardy,” said MacIsaac.
McLaughlin said the time for town officials and residents to begin serious discussions on the future of a new station with the release of an updated feasibility study issued in February 2016 by Donham & Sweeney Architects.
Read the feasibility report here.
In a nutshell, the study found that at 14,800 square feet, the current headquarters has become woefully inadequate for the space requirements of a modern police department. The feasibility study calls for more than double the square footage, ideally 30,000 square feet to be a viable building a quarter century in the future.
The report analyzed placing the new headquarters on the incinerator site at a cost of $18.4 million.
If the town moves forward on building the department’s future home, Belmont would join others in updating its police station. This January, Weston opened its 21,000 square feet facility including the shooting range, at a little over $12 million, Malden will enter it’s new 24,000 square foot facility in the fall and Gardner’s new $14 million police station is about 31,000 square feet, replacing the former station with 18,000 square feet.
Many of the new facilities are replacing buildings about 40 years old, half the age of Belmont’s current police headquarters.
“If the town says the high school is aniquated and that was built in 1971, what are you telling us by not addessing our building that’s twice as old and in much worse shape?” said McLaughlin.
McLaughlin acknowledges that a new Police Headquarters will be competing with other capital needs such as a DPW facility, a library and other big-ticket items. In past discussions with town officials, a portion of the cost would come from the sale of the existing Concord Avenue police station and the adjacent former Belmont Municipal Light Department for commercial development. And McLaughlin said he would be eminable to share the incinerator site with a new DPW headquarters.
“I’m not saying we’re any more important than anybody else. The unfortunate part is the town hasn’t kept pace with what their projects should have been,” he said.