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Construction, politics, secrecy clash in Capitol project

The state Capitol's East Annex. (Photo: State Department of General Services)

A fight is brewing in the Capitol – about the Capitol.

It’s all about plans to build a new Visitors Center beneath the domed West Wing and demolish the 68-year-old East Annex, replacing it with one of three proposed buildings.

The East Annex, completed in 1952, contains offices for the 80 Assembly members and 40 state senators along with their staffs, hearing rooms, the governor’s office complex, the lieutenant governor’s office, the news conference room, below-ground parking for legislators and, on the first floor, exhibits from California’s 58 counties.

“Many of its key systems are in the 65th year of their expected 50-year useful life.” — Department of General Services

There’s a cafeteria on the top floor. Offices on that sixth floor have traditionally been viewed as the Capitol’s Siberia.

Backers of the replacement plan point out that the Annex has inadequate infrastructure for today’s electronic requirements, that it’s loaded with asbestos, doesn’t meet the requirements of  the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the air conditioning is inadequate for Sacramento summers.

“Many of its key systems are in the 65th year of their expected 50-year useful life,” the Department of General Services has declared.

Critics are not convinced, citing the hefty price tag, the secrecy surrounding  much of the negotiations and environmental concerns.

The demolish-and-replace move is spearheaded by Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) who chairs the Joint Legislative Rules Committee.

In addition to its other shortcomings, Cooley maintains, the East Annex could be dangerous to the public.

“I had my chief of staff one of those clicker-counters to do a count of the number of people – parents with children in strollers — in a corridor outside a big hearing room one day in 2019, and she came up with 1,300 people in that corridor,” he said.  “If there were a fire alarm, there’s no way we’d get those parents with strollers out of that hallway.”

Construction cost is estimated at $755 million, increased to some $1 billion by interest on the construction bonds

“There are a lot of fundamental public values the building fails at. People in wheelchairs have a hard time maneuvering.” he added.

Opponents say it’s “a pet project for one lawmaker” (presumably Cooley.)  They say that in addition to being a huge expense, the new “luxury” building proposal will destroy too much of Capitol Park, including 100 historic trees. And with a pandemic still raging and high unemployment, they argue, this is not the time to be embarking on expensive building projects. They note that the East Annex has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Construction cost is estimated at $755 million, increased to some $1 billion by interest on the construction bonds. Project opponents say that the necessary steps to improve safety in the East Annex can be accomplished at a fraction of that cost – perhaps $300 million. Furthermore, the whole enterprise has been put together behind closed doors.

The “Historic State Capitol Commission – established in 1984 for the express purpose for reviewing maintenance, restoration, development, and management of the historic State Capitol – was denied project information, resulting in the resignation of two commission members,” opponents declare on their website saveourcapitol.org.

The Visitors Center, somewhat resembling the U. S. Capitol’s Center, would burrow underneath the west side of the state Capitol with an entryway to the building.

There are three proposals for new buildings that would replace the Annex:

A Square – Perhaps the simplest in design, aligning with the north and south sides of the existing West Wing. It would have a central atrium.

The “Double T” – More complex in outline than the Square, it would involve two “T” shaped structures, providing space between them and perhaps sparing more of Capitol Park’s historic trees.

The Circle – The most eye-catching proposal would create a circular building with an expansive window on top.

All three projects would be designed not to overshadow the domed original Capitol.

The Visitors Center, somewhat resembling the U. S. Capitol’s Center, would burrow underneath the west side of the state Capitol with an entryway to the building.

Opponents say it would block the public from entering the Capitol from the west steps and block citizens from holding rallies and other gatherings in front of the Capitol, the traditional site for such events.

Start time for the Center is indefinite.

If construction on a new Annex goes ahead, legislators and staffers would be housed temporarily in a 10-floor building of 472,600 square feet at 10th and “O” streets. After they move back into the Capitol and whatever Annex is constructed or refurbished, the building would house some 2,200 executive and legislative employees.

The latest proposed Annex first came up during the administration of  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Construction of a Capitol Annex of some sort is not a brand-new idea.

A 1981 history of the Capitol by Lucinda Woodward describes a proposed 1935 bond issue to build two four-story wings onto the east side, preserving the semicircular apse. Legislators would have had private offices within the100,000 square-foot addition instead of working from their desks in the Assembly and state Senate chambers. The bond issue failed, but the idea remained, and construction on today’s East Annex began on. June 3, 1949. The apse, which had contained the State Supreme Court and the State Library at various times, was eliminated.

The latest proposed Annex first came up during the administration of  Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed AB 1826, greenlighting the project in May of 2018.

The original Capitol underwent an extensive restoration in 1975-82, when in effect a modern concrete-and-steel building was constructed within the shell of the old brick-and-plaster Capitol, leaving the exterior mostly unchanged.

Now, backers and opponents seem unlikely to reach a compromise because the question is whether to build or not build, with tens of millions of dollars at stake.

Addendum: The late Doug Willis, longtime Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press, was responsible for probably the worst pun in Capitol history during a tour of the earlier restoration project. A member of the touring group noted that while there were a number of fireplaces in the old building, there seemingly were no chimneys. The tour guide explained that the smoke from the fireplaces was channeled to a single chimney behind the dome.  “Oh – one flue over the cuckoo’s nest,” Willis intoned. — Chuck McFadden

 


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