Capitol renovation will be major disruption

Capitol repair
The northern end of the Minnesota State Capitol has already been wrapped with protective sheathing in preparation of a major repair job. Crews have already started washing the limestone to find cracks and holes that need to be repaired.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

A plan to renovate the State Capitol hit a snag Monday after Gov. Mark Dayton, state lawmakers and other members of the Capitol Preservation Commission objected with concerns over both the short-term and long-term plans for the building.

For months, architects and construction teams have been working behind the scenes to come up with a plan that will keep the Capitol operating as work crews start the four-year renovation project on the building.

It's a major undertaking that could be a major pain in the neck. The renovation will displace legislators, legislative staffers, the governor's office, the Attorney General's office and the press corps for at least some part of the renovation, even as the House and Senate Chambers continue to hold session from January to May.

"It's going to be miserable for you, for me, for everybody who needs to function here. It's going to be like a major highway project," Dayton said.

Capitol window replacement
Crews have also started replacing windows throughout the State Capitol. They are building boxes to around the windows to ensure that the interior is not damaged during the replacement.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

But the proposal is worth it, he said, because the Capitol can no longer get by with a facelift and "tummy tuck." Every portion of the Capitol will be addressed. Crews are already working on the building's exterior to fix leaks and cracks. In September, the guts of the building - plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning will be replaced. The $272 million undertaking will be the biggest since the Cass Gilbert-designed building was first opened in 1905, said Wayne Waslaski, director for real estate and construction services for the state Department of Administration.

"Past projects have all been piecemeal. They have all been basically asset preservation projects to repair specific issues that have come up. This is a completely different approach," Waslaski said. "This is a comprehensive approach looking at a hundred-year timeline to preserve the building for the next hundred years."

But there is disagreement over what the space should look like over the next hundred years. Some lawmakers said that balconies should once again be opened for public access. Others, such as Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFl-Minneapolis, expressed concern that the Capitol lawn will be temporarily paved over to be used for parking and construction preparations.

"The Capitol grounds to me are part of the Capitol public space. There are so many rallies, so many events held year round. This will threaten the tree cover and the permanent greenery," Loeffler said.

Capitol planners said they will take steps to protect the trees on the site and that he grass will be completely replaced after the work is done.

"We're designing this thing for the next hundred years, not for the next hundred weeks for our convenience."

Inside the building is another issue. The renovation will provide additional bathrooms, full access for people with disabilities and education space for children and tour groups. That means less space for existing tenants who include the governor, the attorney general, the House and the Senate. Complicating things further is that the existing tenants all have a say in how the existing space should be allocated. That prompted Dayton to ask whether proper perspective is being kept.

"We're designing this thing for the next hundred years, not for the next hundred weeks for our convenience," Dayton said. "If this is going to be to protect our domain and serve our immediate interests, we really shirk our responsibility."

Others also want to know why renovation planning is being done independently of a new Senate office building. Dayton and the Legislature in May approved funding for a new $90 million Senate office building. A design has not been approved yet but the building is expected to house most senators and staff, and include a parking garage and committee rooms. However, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he wants to keep senior senators and staff in the Capitol building.

"If the public is going to participate in the process, I think committee hearings need to be in the Capitol, so we're going to build committee rooms in the Capitol," Bakk said. "It would be pretty difficult for the Senate and all of our staff to be housed in another building and then expect to hold hearings in this building."

Bakk's plans could create a rift with House members whose offices and committee rooms are in a separate building. The Capitol Preservation Commission is expected later this month to approve the first portion of the Capitol renovation plan. It appears that the commission members will wait for answers to their questions before approving funding for the entire design.

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