By Don Davis
The Minnesota state Capitol grounds is about to look more like a construction site than the people’s house as some wonder if planners are getting the cart before the horse.
Those who work in the Capitol basement must move out in less than two months, the start of interior renovation, but Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, told a Capitol Preservation Commission meeting Monday that plans she has seen show 50-inch touch screen televisions scattered around the Capitol once the nearly $273 million work is done in December 2016. Those details are in print, she said, while officials have yet to decide fundamental issues such as how much space various agencies will get in the newly renovated Capitol.
“You have to look at the whole,” she said.
Gov. Mark Dayton agreed, saying that the commission he leads needs to allocate space before other decisions are made. However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, explained to Dayton after the meeting that a law he signed in May gives space decisions to tenants such as the House, Senate, governor’s office and attorney general’s office, not the commission.
The commission plans to approve an overall renovation plan July 22 , but planners say many details will be decided later this year.
Whatever those details are, Minnesotans wanting to do business in the Capitol will face major inconveniences during construction.
“It’s going to be like a major highway project,” Dayton said, a problem during construction but worthwhile once it is done.
Two parking lots on the north side of the Capitol will be turned into construction areas, along with much of the space directly in front of the Capitol, which faces downtown St. Paul to the south. Two temporary parking lots will be built on the grassy Capitol mall, while preserving monuments and memorials scattered around the grounds.
Planners said they will try to keep construction activity as much out of sight as possible, but there is no way around the fact that the Capitol will be a construction zone at least through 2016.
“It should be cleaner, brighter, more accessible” once work is done, said David Hart, the man state officials hired to coordinate renovation.
Bakk said that the newly restored Capitol will look much like it did when it opened in 1905, but with modern conveniences and safety features.
Much of the Capitol work centers on updating aging heating and air conditioning systems, along with improving electrical wiring and technology systems such as computer connectivity.
The marble dome already has been repaired after years of water leaks and work has stepped up on fixing crumbling exterior marble walls. Some chunks large enough to hurt or kill a passerby have fallen in recent years.
Interior walls and doors will be restored to their original look and windows will be replaced. New elevators, stairways and restrooms will be added.
The original renovation price tag was $241 million, but in May, legislators added nearly $32 million more, mostly for repair of stone artwork on the outside of the Capitol. About $2.2 million of the new money was earmarked to allow some Capitol windows to be opened and closed.
Interior work begins Sept. 2 with demolition in the basement, where large air-handling equipment shares space with tenants such as the Minnesota Historical Society and the Capitol press corps.
Most basement dwellers will be moved to other space for the duration of the renovation project.
Everyone who works in the Capitol, including Dayton, will be displaced for a time. However, the plan is to hold legislative sessions in the House and Senate chambers every year during construction.
“I think it is really happening too fast,” Loeffler told the commission, saying she fears that not everyone’s needs are being heard.
She said, for example, that she wants a second-floor balcony overlooking downtown St. Paul to be reopened after years of being locked. “What a lovely space it was.”
Hart assured her that the balcony is being considered, but to make it handicapped accessible and safe may be costly.
He also told Loeffler that details such as televisions being scattered through the building, such as she read in renovation paperwork, have not been decided.
Dayton and Loeffler said officials need to step back and take a broader look at how the space should be divided before looking at details.
“What do we want for the Capitol of the state of Minnesota?” Dayton said needs to be answered.