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Murray puts new North Precinct station on hold

Renderings of the proposed Seattle Police North Precinct building. Credit: City of Seattle

Mayor Ed Murray is putting plans for a new North Precinct Station on hold. The decision, announced Thursday night, is a huge victory for Seattle activists who had staunchly opposed the $149 million proposal as an overpriced symbol of police militarization at a time when Seattle is struggling with homelessness and housing.

“While we have had extensive discussions and planning,” Murray said in a statement, “it is clear we need to reconsider the plan as proposed and ensure we are meeting the needs of the community with what we build. As I have said, if this project inhibits our ability to continue strengthening the relationship between our community and our police, then we would revisit it.”

The saga of the North Precinct station is long. Discussions about replacing it began in 1998 and have been shelved and dusted off many times since. To date, the city has spent millions just planning the building. This year’s budget included $4 million to finish the permitting process. For a time, Murray considered running a public safety levy for the primary purpose of funding the new station.

Opposition to the station ran deep for a myriad of reasons. The building was designed to withstand a 9.0 earthquake, but many protestors saw the fortification as the department building itself a bunker, hence the #BlocktheBunker flag many of them organized under.

But perhaps more than that, the cost seemed to balloon inexplicably. Thanks to the city’s poor and disorganized process for pricing capital projects, the City Budget Office essentially made up a number of $88 million in early budgets, before revealing what they believed to be the true cost of $160 million. Small cuts were recently proposed.

The city and the department have, until now, justified the cost as a necessary expense to create more training space to comply with federal police reforms.

But as was made evident in a tour of the current station last week, not everyone buys that infrastructure and police reform are necessarily connected. Councilmember Kshama Sawant, in particular, has pressed the department to explain “how need for training is necessarily correlated to space.”

In his announcement, Murray seemed to want to place some blame at former Mayor Mike McGinn’s feet for the decision to build one building in North Seattle, referring to “the building proposed by my predecessor.” Murray’s budgets, however, have included money for planning, and the jump from $88 million to $160 million took place during his administration. In a letter sent to the Seattle City Council, Murray said he still “strongly believe[s] there is a need for a new police facility in North Seattle, and remain[s] committed to replacing the current building.”

Following the decision, the mayor got immediate support from several councilmembers. Not surprising among them were councilmembers Sawant and Mike O’Brien, who had raised questions about the project. But he also had the blessing of Councilmember Debora Juarez, which does come as a surprise. The precinct falls in her district. And from the day she took office, finalizing the current facility’s replacement has been one of her three top priorities (the other two being funding the 130th Street light rail station and the construction of a pedestrian bridge to connect North Seattle College to Northgate Mall). She sent out a statement saying the “the current proposal is too expensive and was not designed with meaningful input from communities of color.” Her office was not immediately available for comment.

Murray said he would be willing to consider multiple design options but remains committed “to replacing the aging precinct.”

On social media, the #BlocktheBunker campaign exploded in joy, with posters calling it “AMAZING NEWS” and a “major victory.”

One result is that the officers stationed in North Seattle will have to wait some time longer for a new facility, likely beyond next year’s council and mayoral elections. Meanwhile, it will be for the council to decide what to do with the new chunk of change they just found in their pocket. In a statement, Sawant advocated for building 1,000 affordable homes, but that decision will come with budget discussions this fall.

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