By Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Jennifer Brooks

The latest draft designs for the Minnesota Senate's $90 million new legislative office building and parking ramps shows an expansive five-story building, with high windows, new offices and hearing rooms, a reflecting pool, a glass-enclosed walkway along University Avenue and a new gymnasium space.

The building's glass-front facade forms arcs inward to accommodate the view of the State Capitol across the street.

Funding for the new Senate office building was part of the $2.1 billion tax bill that passed the Legislature last session. The building is scheduled to go up in tandem with an even more extensive renovation of the State Capitol. The Senate offices are scheduled to be complete in 2015. The Capitol renovation will continue through 2017.

Teams of designers and architects have been meeting for months with lawmakers and staff from both parties and both houses to discuss the new office space, said Amos Briggs, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. Documents from the Nov. 12 workshop show participants debating everything from skylights on the roof to the parking ramps to the location of the proposed fitness center.

"These drawings and models change day by day based on cost limitations, tenant feedback, and site restrictions," Briggs said in a statement, noting that no final design plan can move ahead until approval from the House and Senate Rules committees. The new building itself will cost $63 million.

"Though the plans are far from finalized, the intent is that the new, multi-use legislative building will provide large public meeting spaces that will allow more citizens to attend and participate in legislative hearings than ever before and include modern accommodations for the disabled community," Briggs said. "Additionally, the new building will provide office space for Senators and staff from both parties who would be permanently displaced as a result of the already underway restoration work on the State Capitol building."
Right now, state senators occupy offices in the Capitol and the nearby State Office Building, which also houses state representatives. During the session, Bakk argued that the Senate needed its own legislative office space and room for hearing rooms that can accommodate larger crowds.

But the project, which was included in the tax bill late in the session with little debate, raised eyebrows. Former Republican representative Jim Knoblach has filed suit against the state in an effort to block the construction. That suit is slated to be heard in Ramsey County Court in late January.

The project also worries Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee.

"My great fear is that we are overbuilding," said Hausman, noting that senators who currently occupy two floors in the State Office Building are about to get a five-story building of their own.

Hausman's committee would usually have had the job of vetting and approving a large-scale project like a new Senate office building, but instead, it was tucked in to the tax bill in the final hours of the session.

A frustrated Hausman watched the Senate building project pass with a simple majority in the tax bill, while her $800 million bonding bill -- full of road, bridge, sewer and infrastructure projects from around the state -- fell five votes short of the supermajority it needed to move out of the House. A pared-down bill that funded little more than the Capitol renovation project passed on the final day of the session.

"The frustration I have is that I know again this next year, we'll have the usual political rhetoric about big bonding projects. But meanwhile, some Capitol projects have moved ahead despite of these challenges. Some have gone to the head of the line," she said.

Hausman added: "One of the things they say is, 'Well, the House is upset because the Senate is getting new office, so we'll move out of the State Office Building...and you'll have two more floors.'...And I'm thinking, 'But we don't need two more floors."

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