Most of the plodding, hour-long meeting of the recent Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) centered on the new State Office Building Expansion, a $500-million-dollar proposal to double the size of the building housing offices for state representatives. The presentation to the CAAPB, a government body that oversees the Capitol area, was one of its major administrative hurdles.
It grew more interesting 40 minutes into the presentations, when CAAPB Executive Secretary Merritt Clapp-Smith yielded time to Michael Bjornberg, one of the board’s three architectural advisors. He was not shy.
“The State Office Building Expansion is architecturally pretentious for its locale, and has consumed space devoted to public uses,” Bjornberg declared. “(It) proposes to use land that is public land, formally and informally used, and is the only space on the Capitol complex within view of all branches of the state government. We oppose the State Office Building expansion in its configuration.”
Bjornberg touched on a fissure in the bureaucratic landscape around the State Capitol. He had three major criticisms: that the building expansion process “blatantly excluded” the CAAPB; that it eliminated quality public land; and that it removed critical views connecting the Capitol mall with the surrounding city.
Of course, large-scale public projects don’t live and die by the approval of obscure advisors to government agencies. Minnesota House leadership sees the matter differently, and the State Office Building expansion has solid support in the current Legislature. Still, it would be nice if the changes to the State Office Building improved, rather than harmed, the already sub-par public space around the state’s historic Capitol building.
The State Office Building, or SOB
Everyone seems to agree that the State Office Building expansion plan happened quickly. When the money was allotted in a House Rules Committee budget in December, both the renderings and the very large sum attached to the project – about the same price tag as Target Field – took the public by surprise.
As the House architectural consultants explained it, inside the legislative halls, there have been months of discussions. Last year, structural engineers studied the State Office Building as it stands, and found a need for remodeling. Then, when consultants began asking the building’s legislators, aides, and other staffers what they would improve, there was a long list.
“We were all hired thinking this was a renovation,” explained one consultant during the CAAPB testimony. “But when we got done with this we realized the needs for the building were quite a bit more than what would fit back in the building.”
The result is a building footprint that almost doubles the size of the existing structure, from 280,000 square feet to 465,000 square feet. The new building adds two new entrances, an array of meeting rooms, and security features — an understandable concern in the aftermath of January 6th.
“The State Office Building expansion is designed for two functions,” House Majority Leader Jamie Long said. “One is for public access, improving the ability of the public to interact with the legislature; and the second is safety, because our existing building is outdated.”
As Long explained, none of the added space would be for legislative offices. Instead, the extra space would go to public meeting rooms, corridors, and other kinds of open interior chambers. From the inside, the new office building would dramatically change the experience of the Capitol complex for the public.
Minnesota’s Capitol area has its own unique history. When the capitol was originally built in 1905, the entire surrounding area was known as the Central Park / 13th Street neighborhood, a diverse area of aging mansions, shops, industry, and working class homes. Inexorably over time, government buildings ate away at the historic fabric. One by one buildings were acquired and demolished for offices, monumental open space, or government parking lots.
Minnesota’s State Office Building is one of the few links to that older time, sitting on what was always a key intersection in St. Paul. When it was originally built in 1932, it was tucked into an existing Rice Street neighborhood, surrounded by buildings, homes, and a busy city street.
Today’s quiet landscape has little resemblance to its history. The State Office Building underwent a major change in the 1980s. Architects literally raised its roof to shoehorn in another floor of offices to house the Revisors of Statues (the lawyers and legal teams who draft legislation). The remodel dramatically changed the footprint of the building, removing the atria that had existed in the original floor plans, and giving today’s building interior its jumbled ambience.
(Fun Fact: in 2005, there was a brief proposal to rename the building after Ronald Reagan, who had died a few years earlier. They way I heard it, once the bill’s authors realized that the resulting acronyms would be “Ronald Reagan SOB”, they withdrew the proposal.)
The rest of the building is a combination of stately and bland, with stone steps, brass railings and gopher-laden banisters alongside gray carpet and cubicles. Legislators’ offices all have windows, but the rest of the staff are relegated to blank walls.
Importantly, the well-used committee rooms in the basement connect seamlessly into the Capitol complex’s tunnel system. But windowless and cramped, they literally pose obstacles, particularly around compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating questions about the utility of the existing footprint. With a remodeled state Capitol and a brand-new Senate Office Building on the other side of University Avenue, it’s not a surprise that House members have grown weary of the 90-year-old building’s lack of amenities.
Apart from the state budget, the biggest casualty of the State Office Building expansion is a small, two-acre patch of grass, benches, paths and trees known as Leif Erikson Park, in honor of the state erected there in 1949. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like much. But to me, it ranks as the finest everyday public space in the Minnesota State Capitol area, certainly one of the best spots for eating a sandwich in the shade.
(To be fair, that’s not much of an honor. By one ranking, Minnesota boasted the 10th worst urbanist state capitol in the country.)
The expanded building would occupy most of the existing park, though it would remove an existing surface parking lot at the corner of Rice and University in favor of new parkland there.
“We are also trying to use the opportunity to reliance the area around the building make some improvements,” Long said. “That includes taking out the surface parking lot that is currently adjacent to the building, and turning that into green space.”
From an urbanist perspective, the change is a step in the wrong direction. The pathways and angled entrance of Leif Erikson Park run under a tree canopy that fosters the Capitol’s most comfortable public space. It has the added benefit of being the most seamless entrance from the key corner at Rice and University, with a pathway connecting the light-rail stop into the interior-focused spaces of the Capitol mall.
Walk through Leif Erikson Park, you get a faint sense of what St. Paul felt like when the capital was built. Today’s parking lots and statues used to be part of a densely populated intersection, thick with Victorian-era buildings. Notably, a famous German cultural center, the American House, once sat next to the State Office Building, where it served as a hotbed of weddings, bowling, and labor rallies.
The loss of the Leif Erikson Park points to a more fundamental problem with St. Paul’s most famous building. The Capitol area lacks connections with its surrounding urban fabric, a common problem in U.S. capital cities. Because most decision makers live nowhere near their capitals, and because decisions are made by oft-myopic committees, the public realm gets short shrift. Capital cities that do it right, like Madison, Boston, or Denver, display a combination of providence and geography that’s rare in modern government.
At this point, there’s not much that can be done to rescue the park. Unless something changes during the end-of-session drama, groundbreaking for the expansion is months away.
The good news is that many of the smaller maples and elms lining the pathways, dappling sunlight onto the benches, can be saved. They’ll be transplanted elsewhere into the sprawling Capitol grounds.
“There’s been active discussion with (the CAAPB) to work out a plan to make sure we are fulfilling the needs of all public access concerns,” Long said. “From places where folks gather to having additional green space. I’m feeling optimistic that between now and the meeting, we’ll land in the good place.”
Editor’s note: Merritt Clapp-Smith’s title has been updated.