July 18, 2007
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Writer
Sirens blared in downtown Hartford as Mayor Eddie Perez spoke outside a large abandoned brick building about the "spillover" effect in constructing a new public safety complex. Economic development and neighborhood renewal, the mayor said at Tuesday's groundbreaking, are likely consequences.
The architectural plans for the 135,000-square-foot structure on High and Atlantic streets, just north of downtown, are indeed attractive. And a consolidated downtown presence of police, fire and emergency medical personnel should make for more responsive departments and allay fears that the city is unsafe.
But alarms should also be sounding about the cost - now projected at $77 million, almost double what voters approved at a November 2000 referendum.
Let's say you're buying a new house. The builder notes your specifications, then gives you an estimate. Seven years later, the house is still not built. Now, the same builder is suggesting the price is going to be higher. OK. But double?
"You'd be outraged," said Joel Raphael, an architect who lives and runs his business in Hartford. "I was outraged that the project went from $40 million to $77 million and nobody seemed to care. As a professional, I find that unacceptable."
It's unconscionable and unbelievable that voters don't rise up when they've been gouged. The same thing happened when Hartford Public High School, still under construction, was a measly $20 million over budget. Then, new schools Chief Steven Adamowski arrives and compounds the problem in making the observation that the Pub is already obsolete because it's too big.
At a public hearing on the public safety complex Monday, only two of nine council members - Veronica Airey-Wilson and Elizabeth Horton Sheff - were present.
No one from the public spoke for or against the project. Hard to say whether it's just apathy or summer scheduling conflicts. We do know there's unrest among Hartford residents about how the city is managed. There's going to be a contested Democratic town committee mayoral endorsement Thursday, a prelude to what is expected to be a competitive primary. Also, more than a dozen people are competing to be on the city council.
One of the latest council entrants, businessman Paul Mozzicato, said he's running, in part, because the city is spending like "drunken sailors."
The public safety complex, though clearly needed, is an example of poor planning and lax accounting. Raphael is convinced "it was never adequately priced from the beginning."
Perez concurs, pointing out that he wasn't in office when the construction was approved and that previous budget estimates for city projects were known to be inaccurate. The mayor said the complex as designed now is far better than what was originally planned in 2000.
"The scope is different. The location is specific and it's a larger project," Perez said, adding that his administration started working on the building specs in 2002. "The fact that the building wasn't built ... is not something I worry about."
The city's decision to restore, rather than raze, a historic building also increased costs, which included money to purchase adjacent land and for environmental cleanup.
I guess the city can take heart in Perez's prediction that the project, due to be completed in 2010, is "going to be on time and on budget."
There's optimism in the air - or is that a siren I'm hearing?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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