Fresno Plans Major Public Safety Complex

Jul. 16--Plans are emerging for a massive Fresno police and fire headquarters that officials hope will jump-start development of a dusty southwest corner of downtown dotted with vacant land, boarded-up buildings and clusters of homeless people.

The proposed $100 million public-safety complex, however, is little more than an idea. Architectural plans haven't been finalized and some property owners on the edge of Chinatown where city officials want to build have not yet been contacted.

Mayor Alan Autry's administration wants to put a two-story complex on about 12 acres roughly bordered by Ventura Avenue and Santa Clara, F and G streets. But first the city must secure money to pay for it and complete nearly 12 months of environmental study.

The Poverello House, a homeless shelter, must be moved, and the city would have to buy the building and land where a rug company has done business at Ventura and G for 95 years. City officials have yet to talk to Kerr Rug about a price.

Construction of the project's first phase, estimated to cost $50 million to $55 million, is scheduled to begin in early 2009. It's not known when the final phase would begin.

Once the entire project is complete, the complex would include about 200,000 square feet for police and about 40,000 square feet for the Fire Department. There would be an additional 110,000 square feet for classrooms, computer labs, communications and dispatch operations and a center that would be used to coordinate emergency response to major disasters.

City leaders hope the new headquarters, and an increased police presence, will help attract residential and retail developers to a long-neglected area. They want the complex to anchor a more vibrant Ventura Avenue corridor that ushers visitors to and from downtown.

"I would expect that it would spur a lot of private development in the area," Council President Henry T. Perea said.

Kathy Omachi, vice president of the nonprofit Chinatown Revitalization, said putting the headquarters on the historic district's border should cut down on the drug dealing, panhandling and prostitution that plagues the area.

Currently, the Kerr Rug building is surrounded by bare lots, dilapidated and boarded-up homes, a gas station and a liquor store.

On a recent morning three homeless people lounged on shaded grass in front of the Kerr entrance. Two other homeless people leaned against the side of the building and shared a 40-ounce bottle of malt beer.

Kerr Rug owner Scott Hatleli said it's not unusual to have homeless people loitering on his property. "We're always calling the Police Department," he said. "They need to clean this area up."

For about a year he has heard rumors that the city wants to buy his three acres. But Hatleli hasn't heard from city officials.

Hatleli said he would sell his property at Ventura and G "if the price was right."

But he isn't sure what that price would be. "I'd have to get an attorney and a Realtor," Hatleli said.

Jim Connell, executive director of the Poverello House, said he is looking forward to moving the shelter and hopes to expand its services. He wants the city to purchase a site and then sell it to the shelter.

City officials said it's especially important to redevelop the area around Ventura, just east of Highway 99, because they believe downtown visitors frequently use the street. And they want people to enter and leave downtown with good impressions of the area.

Ventura is slated to be spruced up soon, Assistant City Manager Jon Ruiz said, with plans to widen part of it and add a median, new curbs, gutters and sidewalks. The work will be paid for with money from Measure C, the half-cent sales tax that Fresno County voters agreed to extend last November.

It's less clear how the city will pay for a new police and fire headquarters.

City Hall has $8.2 million budgeted for downtown land acquisition, and $4.7 million of that could be used to buy ground for the complex.

The city also has $2 million in federal funds that can be used to move the Poverello house, but it's not known how much that will cost. City and Poverello officials say they'll likely move the shelter about a mile south into a largely industrial area.

Ruiz says the city could finance a $2.8 million bond for the complex using money from future developer fees and use another $2 million from the city's general fund.

But the city would need to win tens of millions of dollars more in state and federal grants or loans to fund the project.

City administrators also must win approval from the City Council, and at least one member is concerned with plans to build the headquarters project with borrowed money.

Council Member Brian Calhoun said he likes the idea of a public-safety complex near Ventura and G, but added that he won't agree to finance any part of the project until city administrators detail Fresno's total debt.

"I want an update on all our bonding," Calhoun said. "Basically, I've told staff, 'I'm not going to vote on any project until you show me the whole bonding picture.' "

No one disputes that the police and fire departments need bigger buildings.

The Police Department is running out of room at its headquarters in two old buildings on M Street across from Fresno County Superior Court.

Police headquarters is a building constructed in 1959, and the department also uses the neighboring City Hall Annex, built in 1941.

Various policing units that Chief Jerry Dyer wants stationed at headquarters have been forced to move into other buildings around town as the number of police employees grew.

In the last 12 months, the financial crimes, graffiti, gangs and cyber crimes units have all been forced out of headquarters. Previously, internal affairs, the vice and narcotics unit and traffic division were moved out.

When detectives and divisions are scattered throughout the city, "we lose our ability to communicate effectively," Dyer said.

The Fire Department headquarters is being moved from its building on M Street near Highway 41 to make way for the Armenian Town project, which calls for 700,000 square feet of offices and shops and a 1,400-space parking structure on 10 acres.

The Fire Department building will be leveled so a parking garage can be built. The Fire Department will move in October to the Hobbs Parsons building across H Street from Chukchansi Park.

Fire Chief Randy Bruegman said his headquarters will be in the old Hobbs Parsons building for five to seven years. Bruegman added that he looks forward to helping sketch out detailed plans for the new fire and police complex.

"When you have the chance to design something from the ground up, it's an exciting opportunity," he said, "because you get to do it the right way."

The reporter can be reached at or(559) 441-6208.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Fresno Bee, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.