Politics and Government

$500 million for a state building? How did we get here?

An artistic rendering of a building.
An artistic rendering of the exterior of the Minnesota State Office Building from the northeast
Robert A.M. Stern Architects, courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives

Lawmakers on Wednesday approved a nearly $500 million renovation and expansion project for the building near the Capitol that houses their offices.

After planning much of the project outside of public view, the House Rules Committee vote raised questions about how lawmakers got to the final price tag, which is set to eclipse the $310 million spent to renovate the Capitol.

Here’s a look at how we got here and what comes next.

Doesn’t a bill have to go through the Legislature and get signed by the governor?

In 2021 the Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, an omnibus state government bill; it authorized the sale of bonds to fund the renovation or rehabilitation of buildings on the Capitol complex built before 1940. The law says the state can use the money raised by bond sales to fund projects, including expansion of existing buildings, to address health, life safety and security needs.

The state Department of Administration then put out a request for proposals and selected construction management and architecture firms to begin designing the State Office Building  project.

Beginning in the summer of 2022, MOCA Systems, Inc., a St. Paul project management firm hosted workshops with state representatives and others who use the building to assess what would be needed in a renovated building. Then MOCA managers worked with architects from St. Paul-based BWBR and Robert A.M. Stern Architects to draft a plan for the remodeled State Office Building.

Those closed meetings, along with periodic check-ins with House lawmakers, helped shape the proposal released Wednesday morning, said MOCA Vice President Joe Stahlmann.

Stakeholders, including legislative leaders, security and facilities managers on the Capitol complex, and employees who work in the State Office Building got to see early designs. But lawmakers on the House Rules Committee and the public didn’t get a chance to see the plans – or the price tag – until Wednesday morning, hours before the Rules Committee passed a resolution green lighting the sale of bonds for the project.

As the main tenants in the State Office Building, members of the Minnesota House had the go-ahead vote. And because the Legislature had already authorized the sale of bonds for renovation, the committee just had to approve details of the price and purpose this week.

Democrats on the committee supported the resolution on a voice vote, while Republicans opposed it.

The cost of relocating lawmakers, employees and others that use the building, was not covered in the $500 million price tag.

Why wasn’t the plan made public sooner?

Republicans on the panel raised concerns Wednesday about getting to see the designs, and the cost, hours before they were asked to vote on the resolution. And they urged a pause to weigh the project further and to let the public see it.

Outgoing House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told reporters that tenants in the building and lawmakers who’d weighed in on the redesign had a chance to see the plans earlier. But he said the committee waited to share details with journalists and the public because it could have prevented the project from moving forward.

“It's very difficult to plan for a major capital project in front of the media that probably would lead to the same result we've had for the last several decades, which is inaction,” Winkler said, adding that past delays over the years helped add to the overall cost of the project.  

Members of the public can access the proposed design sketches here and the resolution language, along with pricing estimates, here.

How did they get to $500 million?

Winkler said updating the basic mechanical systems of the existing building like roofing, pipes and ventilation would cost $255 million. And he said the cost has grown each time the Department of Administration put in a new request due to deferred maintenance and inflation.

But to address security and accessibility issues, he and Capitol management officials said the building needed to be remodeled and expanded to create more space for hearing rooms, public passageways and other functions.

Earlier this week, Capitol safety officials said the building has long standing issues that have resulted in flooding and mold and that security needs have changed in recent years, considering that the Capitol itself was surrounded by a security fence for months after the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Advocates for people with disabilities said the building fails to meet legal standards for accessibility.

At $498 million, the new building is set to address those issues. The project will also be one of the most expensive in state history. The Capitol renovation cost about $310 million and the construction of the Minnesota Senate Building came in at $90 million.

Some lawmakers said it would be less expensive to demolish the State Office Building and start over, but rejected that option in earlier discussions because they wanted to maintain the historic structure. The 2021 law also blocked that option.

What comes next for the project?

The firms working on the design are expected to provide a more detailed plan for the project in the summer of 2023, Winkler told reporters. And the state can begin selling bonds then to pay for the project.

Construction crews are likely to break ground on the roughly 166,000 square foot addition to the north of the existing building beginning in January of 2024. And construction would likely continue through 2025 and 2026 on renovations to the existing building, House staff said.

They expected the new building would reopen in time for the 2027 legislative session.

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