- FROM SAFEWAY TO SAFER STREETS: An artist's rendering.
The old Safeway store at the corner of 12th and Cedar Streets doesn't look like much these days — a peeling blue hulk of a building, marooned between the Willie Hinton Community Resource Center and the church on the next corner. In its most recent incarnation, the building was a thrift store. In his State of the City address on May 1, however, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola suggested a different future for the structure: a state of the art midtown substation for the Little Rock Police Department. While Stodola envisions the new substation as a kind of public safety keystone for the revitalized 12th Street Corridor he has been talking about since his days as a candidate, an estimated $1.8 million price tag is sure to be a big financial pill to swallow.
For now, with the 12th and Cedar property yet to be acquired and the substation proposal not yet put before the City Board, the new substation exists only as a colorful set of artist's renderings. The project, if approved as it stands, will be paid for with $750,000 that has already been allocated for a midtown substation, with the balance coming from short-term financing.
Stodola said that construction of a substation on 12th Street has been an issue since before he became mayor. “Frankly it's not something that I initiated,” he said. “There was discussion of this before I became mayor. … It's been a desire of the city for quite awhile, and I'm just the one who pushed the ball forward and will make sure it happens.”
Stodola said that a permanent police presence will help stabilize the neighborhood and bring down all facets of crime in the area. “When you look at the homicide rate in this part of town,” he said, “when you look at the neighborhood decline, putting an institution such as a police substation in this area will do tremendous wonders to reduce some of the crime in this area.”
Little Rock Police Chief Stuart Thomas said that while the LRPD does have a number of realistic financial needs, a 12th Street substation will help fill in a “facilities gap” between West Little Rock, Southwest and downtown. Also, Thomas said, a large substation will give the LRPD some much-need room to spread out.
“We have some very legitimate space needs,” Thomas said. “We're still in a situation where detectives are basically hot bunking — they're sharing desks. We have a lack of interview space for witnesses and victims and so forth.” He said that he could conceivably see as many as a hundred officers based out of the new substation at various times of the day and night. Thomas said that parts of the building might be used for large and bulky property storage, more extensive laboratory space for the LRPD Crime Scene Unit, and to store vehicles and equipment out of the weather. In addition, a 24-hour-a-day police presence will bring down crime in a large area around the substation.
“You're going to have officers in and out of there on an hourly basis all the time. And, for our deployments, a facility here minimizes that drive time window that you have when shifts change or squads brief and then go out. The more centrally located these facilities are to the neighborhood, you really shorten that turn-around time.” Thomas said that currently, two of the department's biggest divisions are based in the old VA hospital on Roosevelt Road. Though he called the space an excellent facility, “It's not ours. You hesitate to make long-term modifications or installations of equipment into a facility that you're effectively leasing.”
Michael Keck, Ward 5 City Director, said that the City Board is never privy beforehand to what the mayor will say or present in his State of the City address. He said he takes anything he hears there as “conceptual in nature.”
“I think we need to flesh out the specifics of how we get there,” Keck said. “Is it the best use of funds to use the old Safeway site? Is it better and more prudent to use existing city land to build something? Could we have a greater impact by building on vacant property somewhere else on 12th Street? Those are just some of the things that we're going to have to flesh out a little bit.”
Keck said that he is inclined to move forward with the 12th Street substation project because he believes a police presence in the area will be a deterrent to crime. He points out, however, that there are other long-standing public safety needs. “Our fire department can justify right now, today, the need for three new fire stations in West and Southwest Little Rock,” Keck said. “The need has been in existence for a long time and the last time we looked at putting short term financing in place, we said that the next round of short term financing, there would be an option presented to meet one of the three fire station needs that are out there.”
Keck said it was too early in the process to know whether meeting those other needs might call for a scaled back or smaller substation on 12th Street. “We do have other public safety needs that are of equal importance, and we need to evaluate how we meet those needs,” he said. “I don't think we necessarily have to look at it from an either/or perspective. I think there are some things we can do to help us do both.”