NORTH SMITHFIELD – In a long expected denouncement of the existing North Smithfield police station on Smithfield Road, an architectural firm is recommending the town build a new station estimated at $18.3 million.
Tecton Architects, a Connecticut-based design firm, made the recommendation Monday during a joint meeting of the Town Council and the Municipal Buildings Review Task Force. The town hired the firm last January for $48,500 to determine whether they should build a new police station or renovate the old one.
“For the amount of money, it is our recommendation that you should consider the new construction,” said Jeffrey McElravy, a principal with the firm.
Based on a 2023 construction start date, McElravy said the new station will cost approximately $18.3 million for a 22,214-square-foot building. Renovating the old station, he said, would cost $17.5 million and result in a 23,354-square-foot building. McElravy called the $800,000 difference a “modest cost savings.”
A 137-page report detailed the many problems with the existing building, including cracking building joints, displaced veneer, water damage, deteriorating roof seals and asbestos. In April, an engineer identified major structural issues during a walk-through of the former school.
McElravy also said the prisoner intake area at the current station does not meet current police standards for protecting against self-harm.
“As the facility stands, it no longer suits the needs of the department,” he said.
The report laid out two options for the town, including renovating the existing building and constructing a new police station on the same site. McElravy said the department indicated the site was the “optimal location” for a new station based on call volume.
“A lot of calls for service are approximate to this location,” he said.
Under the renovation plan, the town would commission two additions to the front and rear of the building that would expand the square footage by approximately 8,300 feet. The department would have to move out of the building during renovation, relying on mobile office space and mutual aid from neighboring towns to detain prisoners.
Under the new construction plan, the town would create a new building between the current police station and a recently enhanced park on Merrimac Road. McElravy said this plan had the advantage of allowing officers to continue working out of the old building while the new building is under construction. Once complete, officers will relocate to the new station and the old station will be demolished to make room for parking.
The downside, he said, is that construction will take longer due to the multiple steps involved. The cost is also higher due to demolition costs and amenities within the new building, he said.
Both options would feature a sally port and improvements to the department’s prisoner detainment area. The new construction option, McElravy said, has the added benefit of more parking and a second exit onto Smithfield Road.
While both plans assume the station will remain on Smithfield Road, McElravy said the town may have to consider relocating the playground or municipal court facilities in the future if the department expands.
“The idea that you may have to expand the footprint is a ways off in the future, but things can change over time,” he said.
He cautioned against relying too heavily on the cost estimates, citing the spike in construction material prices over the past year. One project the firm worked on last February, he said, had material lead times of more than a year.
“It’s a little bit of a volatile time to be predicting construction costs,” he said.
Councilor Kim Alves pointed out that in a cost comparison provided by Tecton, the project had a higher cost-per-square-foot estimate than similar complexes in many neighboring communities. Those included a public safety complex constructed in North Providence for $30 million in 2019 and one in Cumberland for $12.5 million, also in 2019.
“There’s quite a lot of extras in these buildings that are above and beyond,” she said.
Council President John Beauregard described the cost as a “boat load of money” but agreed the current building is not suitable for a police station.
Councilor Claire O’Hara put it succinctly, saying the town should do the project now, do it new and do it right.
“Bushee School was wonderful as a school. As a police department? What can I say?” she said.
Councilor Paul Vadenais said it was an ideal time for the town to move forward with a new police station, as the town expects to retire millions in debt over the next five years. Based on preliminary numbers, he estimated a $20 million bond for the project paid out over 20 years would add $122 per thousand to the tax rate. He also urged the town to advocate for federal infrastructure funds to support the project.
“This is an opportune time to look at this as we’re retiring debt,” he said.
The new station also had the support of both former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski and current Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski, who said he’d be concerned about the safety of any family members working in the existing building.
“If you look at the return on investment, it would meet code, it would be safer, there would be no concerns about structural integrity,” he said.
Zwolenski said the town still has $1,260,000 left in a previous bond fund for improvements at the police station and town hall.