One-on-One with Ralph Becker, Mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah

Recently, the CP Dispatch’s Zoe Mentel talked with Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City about the city’s new public safety building, which is currently under construction. This new “net-zero” building will produce at least as much energy as it consumes, while providing an inviting space for law enforcement and community members to interact.

Photo: View of Building from 300 East
View of Salt Lake City's new Public Safety Building from 300 East

Mayor Becker, tell us a little about your exciting new public safety building. How far along is the project and what benefits will it bring to the Salt Lake City Police Department?

We moved into our existing public safety building twenty years or so ago, at a time when it was supposed to be a temporary space. It was a building that was not built for this purpose; it was an office building for a company here. We are now facing conditions for our public safety personnel that are abysmal. The year that I ran for office, four years ago, a bond election was put on to build a new public safety building that failed. I reviewed the proposal and the need for the building after I was elected, even before I came into office, and concluded that we desperately needed a space that would serve the needs of Salt Lake City—not just the emergency services personnel but our community, as well.

We have been moving forward for the past four years, going back to the voters with a revised proposal in 2009, when the bond passed two to one. We are now finally under construction. As we were looking at designing our new public safety building, we knew we needed a facility that met obvious functional needs of fire, police, and emergency services. We do not have, for example, an emergency operations center (EOC) in Salt Lake City. So that was a critical component to go forward. But we also wanted to have our public safety incorporated into the rest of our city operations, not set aside from what has been forming as a civic, governmental campus for us.

Mayor breaking ground
Mayor Ralph Becker breaking ground at the Public Safety Building

I work in a historic building, along with the city council and others, that was completed in 1894. It is one of the most magnificent, historic structures in Utah, located on a 10-acre block with a beautiful urban park surrounding us. The old library, across the street, is being reconstructed into an arts, technology, and science museum and a new library, built about 15 years ago next to the old building, has received international acclaim. So, we picked a site for the public safety building on the block directly east of Library Square.

We want the building to serve our public safety folks while also being very accessible to the public, so that they recognize public safety as opening and inviting. To that end, the front of the building has a large public gathering space. We can use that space for some of the events that we host on a regular basis throughout the year. We have also taken a portion of the block and are planning to redevelop it into a major mixed-use, transit-oriented development, with residential, retail, office, and great public space. We are going out with an RFP for developers now, and are looking to have a very active, engaged part of our city.

Law enforcement has long been associated with the color blue; however, now “green” might be a better color for the Salt Lake City PD. This new building is going to be “net zero”—can you describe for our readers what exactly that means?

Salt Lake City has made it a major goal to be a leader in energy efficient practices with both our facilities and use of renewable energy. For example, we have a minimum LEED silver standard for all of our public buildings. I was anxious to take that a step forward; so our goal was to design and construct a building where we produce as much energy as we use, which is what “net zero” means. You can imagine for a building that houses emergency functions and operates on a 24/7 basis, there are extra demands from an energy point of view. However, we have been able to design a building that uses a lot of passive solar features and incorporates energy and resource use efficiency. The building will produce energy mostly through photovoltaics on the roof and in the canopy that will provide shade in the front of the building. We are also producing energy off-site in an unusable property in the city, an old landfill site. We are hoping actually to produce a net-positive building. So, from a functional and a cost point of view, we think this makes great sense for a variety of reasons. This is a building the city will be using for decades.

Image: View of Lobby looking South
Public Safety Building View of Lobby looking South

The COPS Office has long supported law enforcement collaboration with city planners and architects, especially in the area of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). From your background as a city planner, you must understand about how good design can affect much more than just the aesthetics of a place. How do you think this new building’s design will help facilitate better police–citizen interactions?

As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that has been important to me and our Chief of Police Chris Burbank is a building that is inviting to our public and integrates well with our community. In addition to the plaza in front, the building also has a primarily glass façade for the entrance, as well as a museum on the first floor that will feature the history of public safety in Salt Lake City. Other than the functions that need to be secure, we really are treating this as any other office building. People can freely come in without feeling like they’re walking into a stronghold.

By a margin of nearly two to one, the citizens of Salt Lake City voted in favor of the new building, even during a time when resources are tight. Why do you think there was that much support for this project?

It’s a reflection on our community. When they see a clear cut need for public improvement, they will support it. We also very carefully looked at how we could reduce the cost of what was originally proposed. We considered what core functions had to be housed in a downtown space, versus other areas of the city. We thought about where we could share functions with other state and local jurisdictions to save money. We asked ourselves, “Just how much space do we really need?” And, in the end, we reduced the proposal from $192 million to $125 million.

We also carefully talked to the public about the need for this building. We invited people to take tours of our existing safety building. An organization in our area that routinely opposes every tax increase actually supported this bond election. This was something that was needed. We were giving the public a cost-effective project that added value to our community, downtown Salt Lake, and our civic areas. While there are always people who will oppose any tax increase, many clearly understood the value of this project.

It seems like this new building will be able to help facilitate better community policing by increasing police interaction with other city agencies, creating a more inviting space for citizens, and promoting walkability. As a municipal leader, what advice would you give to other mayors or city managers about how to promote community policing, even if they don’t have the resources to undertake a project of this size?

Community policing, in many respects, really stands on its own. I’m careful not to step into the shoes of other mayors and the conditions of their cities, but I feel comfortable talking about Salt Lake City and why community policing has proven itself to be the most effective approach we can take to addressing crime in our community. It is comprehensive and action-oriented, builds trust and confidence, and focuses on the interactions between our officers and community. By all measures, community policing pays dividends in our community by instilling a sense of security, increasing the responsiveness of our law enforcement officers, and building strong community relationships.

Thank you very much, Mayor Becker. We hope that the Police Department, as well as all citizens of Salt Lake City, will be able to enjoy this new building for years to come.

Fire fighters holding a sign

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