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Designs for Senate office building nearly done — and battle over project gearing up

State of Minnesota
A rendering shows the latest design for the new Senate office building.

Designs for a new state Senate office building near the Capitol complex are nearly complete, but the controversial project will face renewed scrutiny early next year as House lawmakers — many of who felt blindsided by the proposal — take the project up for a vote.

Lawmakers, architects and officials from the Department of Administration went over almost-finalized outside renderings and three-dimensional models of the $90 million office building last week, a modern-looking glass structure that will sit on the Capitol’s north side. Construction is supposed to start sometime next spring, with the building slated to be complete in 2015. Its construction will coincide with a massive project to renovate the 105-year-old Capitol building.

But before that can happen, the project must clear a public hearing in the House and Senate rules committees, likely sometime in January. Few expect trouble from senators, but some House lawmakers are miffed over how the proposal passed last session.

Senate Democrats included the building in the tax bill in the 2013 session’s final hours. While that bill passed off the floors of both DFL-controlled chambers and was signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, House Democrats and the governor say there was little talk about the provision until after session ended.

“I understand that the Senate, just like the House, doesn’t like the other chamber interfering in their design-making, but when it’s an expenditure of public funds, especially such a large expenditure, I think the House should have been more involved,” DFL Rep. John Benson, vice-chair of the House rules committee, said. “Unless I can be convinced differently, I’m pretty skeptical of it.”

New building offers public space

But advocates of the project say the building was designed with Minnesotans in mind — not senators.

The new building will include three massive hearing rooms that can hold hundreds of spectators. The need for larger hearings rooms was illustrated last session, advocates say, as huge crowds gathered for high-profile hearings on gun control and gay marriage.

Roughly $27 million of the total project will be spent on a public parking ramp and tunnel level parking for the disabled. There would be a public entrance space and gallery, according to recent renderings, and the building would be home to additional space for the Legislative Reference Library. The library is currently housed in the State Office Building.

Senators on the second and third floors would have offices hugging a front wall of glass facing the north side of the Capitol, and office-level floors are dotted with smaller conference rooms for work. Early brainstorming sessions for the building included a fitness room and a reflecting pool, but those ideas were nixed in the most recent designs, Department of Administration spokesman Curt Yoakum said.  

LOB in situ
State of Minnesota
The new building will sit across University Ave. from the Capitol.

It was those details that sparked the interest of Dayton, who recently expressed concern that the new building was going to become too costly and wouldn’t fit in with the “Minnesota modest” spirit of its neighboring Capitol buildings. Yoakum said they’ve been working to accommodate the governor’s concerns and keep the project in budget.

“Administration has been working with the design build team on things such as changes to the mechanical systems and landscaping to keep it within budget. I think on top of that, administration is also undertaking a benchmarking process for this to compare this building with similar government buildings to make sure the costs and design are in alignment,” Yoakum said. “You aren’t looking at anything out of line here.”

House critics warn of ‘overbuilding’

Republicans have criticized the project since session ended, and the building is subject to a lawsuit from former House Republican lawmaker Jim Knoblach, who says putting it in the tax bill violates the single subject rule in the state constitution. The tax bill is about taxes, not buildings, he said.

Rep. Alice Hausman

DFL House Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice Hausman agrees. She says the new building should have been vetted in bonding committees. She also doesn’t like using a lease-to-purchase bond sale as the financing method for the project.

“It was a way to go around the process and it was a way for this to go to the head of the list over all the other projects we should have done this year,” Hausman said. “Lease-to-purchase is an expensive way to do it, because it requires us in the future to always appropriate for it.”

What’s more, she said the building doesn’t achieve the goals laid out by the Senate, which included providing swing space during Capitol construction and permanently housing all senators from both parties in the same building for the first time in decades. But early renderings show only 44 senator offices for the 67-member chamber in the new space, Hausman said.

“They have made matters worse. They now have some senators in an office building, and some in the Capitol,” she said. “My concern is that we are overbuilding, and for what?”

Originally, the bill was only to go before the Senate rules committee, Hausman said, but she managed to add a provision at last minute that required a House hearing as well.

“Given the reports I’ve seen in the news, I think we have to look very critically at what comes in front of the rules committee,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL- South St. Paul, who sits on the panel.

Benson, a fiscal moderate from Minnetonka who is retiring next fall, said there are far better ways to spend state dollars. “We’ve got bridges and roads and all kinds of things that need public financing,” Benson said. “I think senators and representatives can stay in their cubby holes a little longer.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bill O'Reilly on 12/23/2013 - 09:26 am.

    “sparked the interest of Dayton, who recently expressed concern that the new building was going to become too costly and wouldn’t fit in with the “Minnesota modest” spirit of its neighboring Capitol buildings.”
    That would be hilarious if it wasn’t pathetic! How can the Governor complain about this building after pushing for the monstrosity that will sit in downtown Minneapolis and cost the taxpayers 12-15 times as much and only be used 10 days a year? Something’s gone terribly wrong in Minnesota!

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/23/2013 - 11:25 am.

    At a little over $143,000

    per office you might want to check check the up grades. Do these folks plan on living there.

    While it looks like a well sited out beautiful building it is to time specific to blend well with the other buildings. Every building in the capital complex should let the Capitol building be the star of the show. If does not show the strength of character that we like to portray in Minnesota, although that might be appropriate for the current legislature.

    A design with visual weight might be more appropriate. Cesar Pelli’s design for the Wells Fargo Bank has the substance we would expect for bankers and his design for the Minneapolis Library has not so subtly shows that libraries can enlighten. I think the design should lean more toward the “trust worthy bank” design and while I like the idea of an enlightened legislature I don’t think the building is going to do it.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/26/2013 - 10:11 pm.

    Too much and not enough

    Most state capitol buildings are products of what I think of as “The Victorian Malaise,” trying (and failing) to duplicate the proportions and, let it be said, the dignity, of Palladio’s neoclassical designs, if not those of the original Classical Greeks. They’re mostly large, gray and ugly, relieved only by occasional (and usually small) touches such as the gilded horsemen on the building in St. Paul, or, on a larger scale, the gilded dome of Colorado’s capitol building. Minnesota’s capitol building is no exception. Starting from there, my objections to the proposed Senate Office Building don’t have a lot to do with the aesthetics, which are awful in a degree to match the Capitol Building, but on more practical matters that – in days gone by – architects could be counted upon to realize and incorporate into their designs. Alas, that remembrance of the practical seems to have disappeared in the era of Frank Gehry.

    Offhand, it appears that in approving even this supposedly tentative design, the Senate has lost its collective mind.

    If you’re going to build a new Senate Office Building, and it doesn’t have enough offices to house all the Senators, then building it is pointless from the beginning. Unless, that is, there’s a secret plan afoot to reduce the number of Senators from the current 67, which we apparently can’t afford to build offices for, to 44, which somehow fits a budget figure I don’t remember reading much of anything about before this. I might support such a plan, since Minnesota, in common with quite a few states, has too many counties to begin with (Missouri has 113, thus proving, I suppose, that a mule couldn’t carry someone nearly as far in 1821 as it could in 1858, when Minnesota was admitted to the Union.). Consolidating some of those counties into larger Senate districts until we reach the apparently magical number of 44 might be a fine idea. While we’re at it, we could combine some House Districts, too.

    A second question that occurs to me is this: Will the architectural firm be paying the utility bills for this glass-walled structure in a Midwestern area noted for its harsh winters and hot summers? Why would anyone in his right mind (especially, or perhaps because of, considering that it’ll be taxpayer dollars that will be paying those utility bills) propose a design heavy on glass walls which, no matter how many layers of glass and inert gas are combined, are unlikely to equal the insulating properties of a “regular” exterior wall.

    It appears that we have a proposal, enthusiastically endorsed by architects who will profit from its development, to construct a building that, from its very first day, will be inadequate to serve the needs of its proposed constituency, and will be an energy sink while demonstrating its inadequacy. Someone in state government needs to be taken out behind the proverbial woodshed…

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