Minnesota Capitol renovation promises to be "miserable”

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2013 - 1:42 PM

Restoring the 100-year-old icon will displace everyone from tourists to the governor.

 

Things are about to get ugly at the Minnesota Capitol.

Starting in September, construction crews will roll up to the century-old building and start tearing the place up before it falls down.

“It’s going to be miserable,” said Gov. Mark Dayton after an almost two-hour briefing on the first phase of the Capitol restoration project. But, he added, “We’re designing this thing for the next 100 years, not the next 100 weeks of our convenience.”

Large areas of the beloved icon dubbed “the People’s House” will be gutted. The wide green lawns will be torn up to make way for construction crews and temporary parking. Almost everyone in the building — including the governor and legislators — will be evicted. Tourists will spend the next several years touring an active construction site.

Looking over the design plans, state Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was reminded of “that old song of paving over paradise and putting up a parking lot.”

But Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, expects that construction chaos will be unavoidable: “You have to break a couple of eggs to make an omelet,” he said.

The project is expected to cost $272.7 million and take until December 2016 to complete, if all goes according to schedule. That investment, state officials hope, will leave Minnesotans with a Capitol that is refurbished, beautiful and ready to welcome visitors and legislators for another century to come.

Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, the classically styled building is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance Revival architecture. It features Minnesota limestone and granite, 16 varieties of marble from around the world, and large-scale murals by premier artists of the day.

Now, after years of fits and starts over funding, the Capitol Preservation Commission has hammered out the broad framework for the upcoming renovation.

Countless questions remain. Who will occupy space in the renovated Capitol? How will that precious real estate be divided? If the Capitol grounds are torn up and covered with construction equipment, where will the public rally and protest? Where will 201 legislators set up temporary offices and how will their constituents be able to find them?

When the Capitol opened its doors in 1905, it was big enough to house the constitutional officers, the entire Senate and the House. That was back when legislators’ desks were their offices.

Today, space is so scarce that only the Senate has hearing rooms in the Capitol and only senators in the majority party can have offices there.

Dayton, for one, questions whether that should change, particularly since the Legislature has signed off on plans for a new state office building that could house senators, staff members and hearing rooms.

“Should there be any senators’ offices here?” asked Dayton. He favors giving the Preservation Commission the final say over how space should be allocated in the refurbished Capitol. Right now, the House, Senate and even the Capitol press corps have a say over how much space they will have.

“What purpose does that serve, to this building and to the people of Minnesota, as opposed to having a brand-new building next door where they could reside?” Dayton said, referring to senators.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, noted that the governor’s staff is itself lobbying for expanded space in the Capitol — space the Senate might currently occupy. It is up to the Capitol’s tenants to decide how that space will be divided, Bakk said, not the Preservation Commission.

“Everybody that wants a little bit more is chipping away at where the Senate was,” Bakk said. “Having a construction background, I’ve understood for a long time how disruptive this was going to be … Not only for the people that work here, but for the public that comes to visit.”

No special session

At the news conference, the governor firmly rejected Republican calls for a special session to repeal a new tax on rental warehousing space that is set to kick in next April.

Dayton’s public appearances on Monday were the first in several weeks, since his return from a European trade mission and a hip-muscle tear he suffered in the governor’s residence.

Dayton said there was ample time to make necessary adjustments to the proposal in the upcoming legislative session.

The warehouse tax is part of a larger tax package that DFL legislators negotiated with the governor. Dayton said that he never wanted that particular tax, but that he accepted it as part of an overall revenue package that would reduce property taxes and increase money for schools.

Dayton said he would like to repeal the warehousing tax and another new tax on farm equipment repair if the state’s rebounding economy brings in enough revenue.

He called the GOP push for a special session — their second shot at the request — political “grandstanding” that did not offer any solutions.

Republicans wrote to the governor Monday that the warehousing tax is threatening to harm some businesses and that the effects would trickle down and hit consumers.

 

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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