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Anchorage

City wants to move police headquarters into empty LIO building downtown

The former Legislative Information Office in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Anchorage Police Department is out of space in its 1980-eras headquarters, police officials say, and they're eyeing a new home base in a building designed for government: the empty former Alaska legislative information office on Fourth Avenue downtown.

On Tuesday, city officials revealed negotiations of a lease deal between APD and the Anchorage Community Development Authority, the city parking and redevelopment agency that said three weeks ago it wants to buy the building.

The deal would mean more than 150 police employees, including detectives, would move from crammed headquarters at Tudor and Elmore roads and into 716 W. Fourth Ave. State legislators vacated the building in 2016 after a judge ruled the Alaska Legislature's lease there was illegal.

Officials said the move would improve public safety downtown and help anchor revitalization efforts.

"It's hugely significant for downtown," said Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. "It's critical for public safety; it saves the taxpayers money."

The building moved into bank ownership after a settlement earlier this year with 716 West Fourth Avenue LLC, a company owned by developers Mark Pfeffer and Bob Acree. It has been empty for nearly two years.

A few weeks ago, the Anchorage Community Development Authority announced it had offered to buy the building for $14 million. The bank accepted the offer.

The deal is the brainchild of Police Chief Justin Doll, who said his department has looked with increasing urgency for new or renovated headquarters for more than a decade. The longtime headquarters in the University Medical District, built in 1986, is out of space, he said.

"We have lieutenants working in broom closets," Doll said.

Past studies showed it would cost APD upwards of $68 million to renovate and expand the existing headquarters, Doll said. When he heard the Anchorage Community Development Authority would be buying the Fourth Avenue building, he said, he immediately started to think about his options.

Under draft terms provided to the Anchorage Daily News, APD would pay about $1.5 million a year to rent the building. Police hope to move in starting this fall. Payments for the lease in the remaining months of the year will come out of the existing police budget, said police spokesman MJ Thim. He said the agency will seek Assembly approval for the full amount in next year's budget cycle.

Police wouldn't entirely vacate the Tudor-Elmore building, Doll said. He said the building will still house the police dispatch center and records clerks, and would be renovated to store the agency's mounting troves of evidence, which are currently scattered at locations throughout Anchorage.

The former Legislative Information Office in downtown Anchorage on Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In the records department, where staff classify documents and process police reports, space constraints have led to an effective hiring freeze, said records manager Jennifer Leneave. That's even as the number of reports has risen dramatically, with the hiring of dozens of new officers in recent years, Leneave said.

When shifts overlap, Leneave runs out of desks, and has people temporarily work out of a break room without a computer.

"Everything's just jammed in there," Leneave said.

Along with Leneave's unit and other support staff, police vehicles would also still be stored at the Elmore building, Doll said. But Doll said there should also be enough parking on the ground level of the Fourth Avenue building and in the two-story attached garage to handle daily traffic. Officers on patrol come in only briefly at the start and end of shifts, which would ease up on parking issues, Doll said.

The Fourth Avenue building is a block away from the state courthouses. Slav Markiewicz, the sergeant in charge of the homicide unit, said the proximity to the courthouses will cut back significantly on driving time for detectives who are constantly traveling to testify on cases or talk to prosecutors.

Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, said the deal makes business sense for his agency. APD would be a stable tenant at a time of high downtown vacancy rates, Halcro said. His agency is counting on lease revenue to pay back the loan for the building's acquisition.

A commercial tenant might have required significant renovations, Halcro said. Police, meanwhile, plan to make very few changes to the building, Doll said, because it was already built for government. Halcro added that his agency would still be paying the equivalent of property taxes, including a tax on lease revenue.

In late summer 2016, the Alaska Legislature moved to the Wells Fargo building in Midtown after a protracted legal saga and wrangling over leases. The move came over protest from Anchorage Assembly members who said government offices should be located downtown.

The Assembly is scheduled to vote this month on the ACDA purchase of the building. The Assembly will also have to approve an eventual lease with the police department.

Assemblyman Eric Croft, who chairs the public safety committee, said he has some questions about the proposed deal with APD. The Fourth Avenue building was custom-designed for government, Croft said. He said he wants to make sure that the building actually fits what APD needs.

Assemblyman John Weddleton referred to the building as a "crystal palace."

"I don't think the general mood of Alaskans is that our government should be in crystal palaces," Weddleton said.

But if it's a beautiful building at a good price, "a good deal is a good deal," Weddleton added.

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