The $16M police station renovation, 9/4/2018

The Town of Vienna has budgeted $16M to renovate and expand the police station.  In fact, they are planning to raise the meals tax from 3% to 4% to cover (most of) the additional debt service cost that will entail.  You can read the details in my posting about the Town capital budget, here.

By eye, at least, $16M seems like a hugely disproportionate number.  The police station isn’t that large, so why will renovating it cost $16M.  And it seems a bit incautious, given that the planned $9M community center expansion ended up costing more than $13M.

Let me start by gathering the facts.  The Town of Vienna website says we have  41 police officers.  Fairfax County tax maps shows that the existing policy department was built in 1993, and has just over 10,000 square feet of gross floor area.  By looking at Google Maps, you can see that the footprint of the building is about 5,000 square feet.  Everything the Town has to say about this, outside of the budget, appears to be here.

So at first glance, that appears to work out to a renovation/expansion cost of about $1600 per square foot.  That’s not even remotely plausible, given the size of the existing building.  What’s the real story with the proposed police department renovation?

The first clues come in when looking at the Town’s webpage on this.  In part to accommodate planned growth of the Town of Vienna population, the architects hired by the Town suggested replacing the existing 10,000 square foot building with two buildings totaling 30,000 square feet (.pdf).

And if you read further, you will see that the architects are not exactly planning for a friendly small-town police department.  The specs include blast film for the windows, concrete bollards to prevent ramming the building, steeply sloped window sills to prevent bomb placement, and special construction to withstand earthquakes.  This isn’t Andy of Mayberry.

So, to sum up:  We’re looking at tripling the size of the existing police station, using two buildings.  (Does this explain the Town’s so-far-unexplained decision to purchase a house on Beulah road? )  The building will be large enough to accommodate planned population growth.  And it will be built to withstand earthquakes, bombs, and riots.

If you read a bit further, you’ll see that the architects who were asked to look at the police station have a clear view of what Maple Avenue Commercial zoning is likely to do.  One of the rationales for expansion of the police facilities is:

” … The Vision would likely result in creative new mixed-­‐use retail, office and housing developments with the potential for additional residential population and perhaps much like similar successful developments in Arlington /Shirlington.  New development zones with higher densities will likely result in corresponding traffic implications.”

Which is a nice way of saying that all that new high-density housing is going to add to traffic.  Which is refreshing to see in print, given how hard the Town Council has worked not to say that.

But, even at triple the size, this still seems rather expensive.  The “renovation” still costs more than $500 per square foot.  And the architects describe 7000 square feet as more-or-less a storage facility.  Is this normal?

Turns out that yes, this is somewhere near average.   This seems to be about what a new police station costs these days.  I did a quick Google search for recently built police stations, and constructed this Excel spreadsheet.  Compared to my “sample of convenience”, Vienna has more police offers per capita, more square foot per office, and a modestly higher cost per square foot.  Of those, only the officers per capita is an outlier within this sample, and even then, it’s not an outlier in context.  Virginia as a whole averages 22 police offers per 10,000, so Vienna’s 25 does not appear unusual within that context.

The upshot is that the planned police station is a bit larger than average, per office.  A bit more expensive per square foot, compared to others.  And we have more police per capita than is customary in the areas studied, but not hugely moreso than the average for the Commonwealth of Virginia.