As Carol Duncan enters her office in the Alexandria Police Department each day, she is reminded that things could be worse. "Fault Line May Doom an L.A. High School," says the headline on the newspaper story tacked outside her door.
Duncan doesn't have to worry about earthquakes. But her workplace, built on a landfill, has been sinking, as much as 3 1/2 inches in some spots, because of material decaying beneath it.
As a result, some of the floors have "waves." Gaps between floors and walls are large enough to shove a department-issued .40-caliber Glock handgun through them. The floor in the weight room is so uneven that users stick a roll of toilet paper under one side of the leg press to level it.
But that's not the worst part, city officials say.
The police department is crowded, with 47 work stations crammed into an office designed for 33. Just getting to headquarters and finding a parking space is a challenge because of all the construction projects, including work on a new security gate. Now more earth is being moved to clear the way for the new Wilson Bridge Beltway ramp that will cut across the parking lot, 70 feet in front of the building.
Although Duncan and many other city officials have been working overtime to sort the mess, one thing has become clear: Just 15 years after the modern, rust-orange brick building opened, planning is underway for a new police headquarters.
"You don't expect your work environment to be a construction site," said Duncan, who oversees building operations. "It's going to be a long haul."
Assistant City Manager Michele Evans said a request will go before the City Council this spring for $16 million to purchase land for a new facility that would cost an estimated $65.5 million and could open by 2010. Finding a site for the new building in one of the most densely populated cities in the nation will be a challenge. So will securing funds as the city plans to build a new high school. But city officials agree that they must bite the bullet.
"We have always prided ourselves on being a progressive agency focused on meeting the public's needs," said Police Chief Charles E. Samarra. "We need the tools to continue to do so, and the new police facility is one we can't do without."
In the meantime, city officials plan to lease space, possibly in Eisenhower Valley, to ease crowding temporarily, Evans said. In the next 12 to 18 months, 114 employees will move out. Some, including officers in special operations, have already been relocated. To address the first-floor sinking problem, which city officials prefer to call "settling" and which may cost nearly $7 million to repair, more people will have to move.
So how did the police department on Mill Road get into such a jam? Around police headquarters, some call it "Mill Street Blues."
The police department was already full when it opened in 1987, city officials said. Currently, 430 employees, civilian and sworn, work in a facility designed for 320. By 2014, a projected 560 employees would work there.
No one envisioned the resources that would be needed to fight persistent problems such as traffic and illegal drugs, city officials said. Community policing also requires putting more officers on the street.
The profession has changed dramatically in the past decade as the world has become more technologically advanced and, in many respects, dangerous, said City Council member David G. Speck (D).
"A division in the police department for intelligence and terrorism? Who would have thought?" he said. "Life is changing. We are identifying that we have inadequate space to provide police services the way we think we should."
The settlement problem, which has created gigantic cracks in some walls, was a "real eye-opener," said Speck, who toured the building. "Doors don't close; cabinets don't close. In some sections on that first floor, you could feel yourself sort of walking on a angle."
Council member Claire Marie Eberwein (R) said, "Obviously, some mistakes were made when the building was originally constructed, in terms of both structure and expansion potential. But even if it had been constructed correctly, given the proximity to the off-ramp to the Beltway, the security issues would remain unchanged. We live in a vastly different world than we did two years ago. It's clear this is a priority for the city."
Ed Mandley, director of the city's Department of General Services, said that extensive testing has determined that the three-story building is safe and that settling has halted for now.
The police department is part of the $26 million Public Safety Center, which also houses the sheriff's office, the magistrate's office and the jail, where some of the alleged terrorists connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are being held.
Unlike the other agencies, police headquarters, on the left side facing the building, was built atop a "floating slab," city officials said. In some areas, soil supporting the slab has eroded. For the most part, the jail has not experienced the same problems, though its walls have some of the same large cracks.
"I don't consider it a crisis. It's a major problem," said Sheriff James H. Dunning. "Solving the crowding problems at T.C. [Williams High School] is a higher priority than solving office space. That's not something you can put off."
But Dunning said crowding at the jail could be eased if his department absorbs some of the space left when the police department eventually moves. In the meantime, he believes that the settlement problems should be fixed as soon as possible.
One of the biggest headaches, he said, will be maintaining public access to the center during construction phases, including enhanced security.
"What is this, a war zone?" visitors ask when they walk into police headquarters, said Daniel Gollhardt, commander of the police records section near the front door. "A lot of people are wondering what's going on."
Because of security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, vehicles are kept farther from the building, and deputies check identification at a point away from the entrance. It's no longer a matter of just pulling up to the front of the building, parking and walking in. A cab was not allowed to stop there and drop off an elderly woman who uses a cane, and she spent 20 minutes struggling to reach the front door, Gollhardt said.
Police Capt. Blaine R. Corle, who has been working with Duncan on the confluence of problems, said employees, too, often must keep circling until someone leaves before they can find a place to park. Construction projects, including work on an apartment complex next door and the Patent and Trademark Office behind it, have affected traffic and parking.
A "slab committee," as it has been dubbed, was formed to look at settlement problems in the building, Corle said. But faced with all of the other issues, members decided to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, he said. They analyzed future space needs and concluded that the solution was clear.
"All of a sudden, we realized we've got to get out of here," Corle said. "We've outgrown this facility. The Wilson Bridge is coming in our front door."
It's way too soon to say where the new police department will be or what agencies will fill its current space.
But one thing is certain. The police department will be decentralized for a time, inconveniencing employees and the public.
"It's going to be disrupted," said Speck of life at the Public Safety Center. "But you can always live with disruption if you know there's light at the end of the tunnel."