Coral Gables is proceeding with plans to move out of its leaking, crumbling police and fire station headquarters and into a new, state-of-the-art building. But the city’s firefighters and cops say they have concerns about their future workplace that have not been addressed because they’ve been left out of the conversation.
“From what we have seen, the new building has so many design flaws, it’s ridiculous,” said Mike Chickillo, a driver-engineer and union president of the Coral Gables Professional Firefighters Association, Local 1210. “We’re afraid we will be stuck in a completely inadequate building that has no room for growth in a growing city.”
Gables police echo the firefighters’ worries about lack of space for offices, lockers and parking in the new Public Safety Building that will be located at the southwest corner of Salzedo Street and Alcazar Avenue.
“We don’t want a building that will be obsolete by the time we move in,” said John Baublitz, a 25-year veteran and president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7. “That’s not what I want for my legacy or for the citizens who expect excellent service.”
City officials said they trust the engineering firm AECOM, which has designed more than 70 other public safety facilities, to get it right. Employees have to be ready to adapt to the new environment.
“It’s difficult to accept change, there’s a resistance to change, but we are creating a first-class building within the constraints of our urban footprint,” said Assistant City Manager and Director of Public Safety Frank Fernandez. “We want to meet all needs and functions in a space that is not necessarily smaller but more efficient.”
Improvements, including a new training center for police, will outweigh constrictions, said Assistant City Manager and Director of Operations and Infrastructure Peter Iglesias.
“The design of the work areas and living areas — it will be like going to heaven compared to what they have now but they just can’t visualize it,” he said. “You can have 1,000 square feet of grossly misused space versus 150 square feet of well-oriented space.”
The city approved a land swap last year that will enable it to build a new $34 million facility a half mile north of the current one at 2801 Salzedo St., a 45-year-old building that isn’t worth renovating. Part of the new facility will be on Lot 6, a city-owned parking lot, and part on privately owned land on Minorca. That property owner gets the land where the current building stands and will develop it into a mixed-use, residential or office building. The city must vacate by August 2020 or pay $166,000 in monthly rent.
The new building, which will include a 160-space public parking garage, could help speed response times in the North Gables, Fernandez said.
While the entire new building will be larger, the fire station will lose about one third to half of its size, said Chickillo, who says it will be “a shoebox on the side.”
He is critical of a reduction in vehicle bays from nine to seven that could force stacking of trucks and cause complications with getting in and out.
“The doors will face Alcazar and we’ll have to have someone out in the street because the trucks will stick out and we’ll be blocking two lanes of traffic when we go in and out,” he said. “You have to pull straight out and make a wide swing. Then the vehicles will have to be backed up into the station after each call.
“Let’s say we run 20 calls per day. We do hydrants, inspections and alarms as well. We’re in and out all day.”
Chickillo also said there’s not enough space outside to wash and decontaminate vehicles, nor are there enough bathrooms for firefighters who work 24-hour shifts.
But Fernandez and Iglesias disagreed, saying the only stacked vehicles will be the antique fire truck used for parades and a trailer with backup equipment. Entry and exiting has been studied given the turning radius of the trucks and will be sufficient. Traffic lights will be programmed to halt traffic when response vehicles need to depart or return.
“It will require adjustment but we are looking at everything from both the operational side and the people side,” Iglesias said.
One of Baublitz’s main complaints is the city’s lack of communication.
“We’ve requested opportunities to give our input and do a tour of our building but we have not met with anybody on the city staff,” Baublitz said. “Who wouldn’t want to move into a new building? We just want it to be right. Look at all the construction on Ponce de Leon and Douglas Road and listen to all the talk about annexation. We have to have room to grow.”
The rank and file deserve to have their voices heard, said Gordon Sokoloff, a resident and dentist in Coral Gables who is vice chair of the Transportation Advisory Board and spearheads the Ponce de Leon Homeowners group in North Gables.
“Unlike Miracle Mile that is an aesthetic horror show we have to live with, this is a public health and safety issue. Seconds count,” Sokoloff said. “All parties — the city staff, our city commissioners and our own fire and police departments — should be working together to build the best and most efficient building possible. The citizens are ultimately paying the price for this new building — and our very lives might ultimately depend upon the outcome.”