A Capital Idea?

Phil Cowan: Good morning, it’s five minutes past 8 o’clock at AM 1380 The Answer and I am very pleased to welcome a guest to our studio. Dick Cowan joins us now. We’ve determined that we’re probably not related, at least not very closely, (laughs) but we do have family from some common areas so somewhere way back there Dick, we may be cousins. 

Phil: I wanted to have you come in, our mutual friend John Kabateck contacted me about a week ago and said “Hey, you need to have this guy on to talk about what’s going on down at the Capitol”, and actually I’m kind of glad that he called because it’s a story that I think most of us have followed a little bit, if you follow what goes on at the Capitol; but I think most people don’t know about it, and I haven’t really talked about it much on the air. There is a proposed improvement project for the Capitol building and the Capitol grounds, being proposed by Ken Cooley?

Dick Cowan: Yes, Ken is the chair of the joint rules committee. The legislature actually owns the Capitol Building, it only owns one building and the executive branch owns the rest of it.  

Phil: I did not know that, huh very good. And um, it’s going to be at a considerable cost, it’s going to seriously disrupt not just the building not just the building itself, but the Capitol Park and the arboretum. Am I correct? Did I hear that general obligation bonds are intended to be used to finance this thing?

Dick: Yes, although the legislature funded the cash to build the project at one time, as COVID hit California, those funds were swept out of that fund. And so, now the plan is to sell bonds which of course increases the cost tremendously. It’s still rising I think, but over a billion dollars now is the estimated cost for this project, with interest.

Phil: Well it begs the question,Dick. If we have a purported 75-billion-dollar surplus, why do we need to sell a couple of billion dollars’ worth of bonds?

Dick: Well that’s a good question.I’ll have to let the legislature figure that out. I think every legislator has a great idea of how to use a lot of that cash. 

Phil: I know every one of them does, I’m sure.

Dick: Yes, the needs are always greater than funds available. In this case, we think we could do a renovation of the historic Annex to the Capitol, the building in question, and solve most of the legislatures’ needs for about $300 million.

Phil: Well that’s some substantial savings. What exactly is it that they propose to do?

Dick: So, there are three elements that they propose. One is to demolish the 1950s Annex, which is a nationally registered listed building—and I could tell you some of the lovely, historic features of that building.

Phil: Well, but if it’s a listed structure on the national register, how can you even justify demolishing it? I thought you couldn’t do that!

Dick: Well, in fact there is a law, a California state law and federal law, that require owners of historic buildings to undergo certain steps. The legislature thinks that doesn’t apply to them [Phil scoffs and laughs], that they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the historic preservation office. We disagree. We think the building does, even if the legislature doesn’t.

Phil: Now you approached this as someone who used to sit on the Historic Preservation committee for the Capitol?

Dick: Yes, the Historic State Capitol Commission is a group of advisors to the legislature about the building. And I resigned as chair after another commissioner, Paula Pepper - a great lady, a very knowledgeable tree expert - said “Dick, we can do more good for the Capitol and the park from outside of this commission, that we can do from inside.” And that’s sad, but I think it was true. Could I go to the second part of the project?

Phil: Yes, and I think that should be the most concerning—although the other part, the demolition of a listed national historic building just strikes me as wrong-headed. But, let’s talk about the other part of this.

Dick: Okay so, part two would be to…on the West steps of the west plaza, where probably most of us have finished a fun run or watched the finish of the bicycle ‘tour de California;’ the plan is to demolish that, dig it up and put an underground visitors’ center there. And we think that’s not a very good idea at all. Huell Howser called that area “California’s front porch,” and I thought that that was exactly the right way to describe it. The third element is really sad. Capitol park is an arboretum with species of trees that we can’t even get anymore—they happen to be in countries that don’t like us much.

Phil: You and I were talking a little bit off the air, every city has it ‘central park’, ours is Land Park; but tome, the jewel in Downtown Sacramento is Capitol Park. It’s just beautiful.

Dick: I couldn’t agree more. It’s fabulous. It’s got trees from every continent, except Antarctica, some of these are irreplaceable. We have a Civil War grove which started with a tree from every battlefield of the Civil War, and currently we think the plans that the legislators are proposing will rip out about sixty of those trees.

Phil: And the idea is they want to build an underground parking garage… Don’t they have one?

Dick: Can you believe it? Well, the currently park underneath the Annex. I don’t disagree with the idea that having cars and trucks underneath buildings is a bad security idea these days. So, certainly we ought to get the parking out from there. The next part though is where I differ with Mr. Cooley’s committee—I don’t think an arboretum is the place for a parking garage. Above ground, below ground—Sorry, you’re going to have to move the parking out of the park.

Phil: Has there been any talk of potentially some of these hard to get species that we have in the arboretum, of trying to transplant them? Might they try to move them?

Dick: Yes, we don’t have a lot of information on that. We’ve been trying to get a lot more. Some could be protected, some could be transplanted, but the survival rate is never 100% on any project that’s been attempted like that; but a lot of the tree roots, don’t go down like a taproot, like a carrot. They spread widely, especially since the irrigation system in Capitol park is basically a surface, broadcast, rain bird kind of irrigation system. We don’t have a deep root. We didn’t know about that when the park was built or first irrigated. So, we know the roots have spread far beyond the canopy of the trees and would suffer a lot, even if it had to be cut off for construction, would that tree survive?

Phil: Now I presume this excavation of the arboretum would take place on the East side of the Capitol?

Dick: That’s correct.

Phil: How big of a footprint are they talking about digging up?

Dick: Well, that’s a good question also. We aren’t sure. There have been several proposals for what the new building and new parking garage will be on the East side. We have more detail about what was planned for the West side, the “front porch” area, but it’s bigger than the current Annex. And that of course, once you begin going wider than a current footprint of a building, you’re going to have to slow back a little bit. Some arbor experts, arborists, say 25 to 30 feet is no closer than a limit of getting to a tree. It’s a very big footprint.

Phil: Our guest is Dick Cowan; we’re talking about this proposed Capitol improvement project and whether or not it’s advisable to tackle this at this time. Can you stay for one more segment? [Dick:Absolutely!]. It’s 14 pasts 8:00, we’ll take a break and when we come back, we’ll talk about why this may not be the best time for this and what our options are going forward. We’ll have more with Dick Cowan right after this on The Phil Cowan Show.

Commercial break

Phil: 16 past 8:00 on the Phil Cowan program and our guest is Dick Cowan. What is the name of the organization you’re involved with right now?

Dick: Our group of volunteers is called Public Accountability for Our Capitol.

Phil: Okay, very good. Is there anyplace people can go to find out more about what you do?

Dick: Oh, you bet. We have a website SaveCalCap.org, and there’s lots of good information there about the problem, our proposed solutions, our issues with the way the project has been managed, as well as the actual product we’re very unhappy with how the legislator has planned this project.

Phil: Well there seems to be a tendency in the legislature, and I’m sorry to say broadly with government in this country, to not want the public to know what they’re up to. It’s increasingly frustrating, but they seem to think that we shouldn’t kibitz in their workings and it’s getting ponderous.

Dick: You know, it is interesting.The executive branch actually does a pretty good job when it does projects. Of course, prepares an environmental impact report, holds public open houses; I think the champion project for having public involvement was the CalPERS project in Sacramento. I was worried but they said, “We are going to take some residential areas for this project, what can we do [for you]?” and they really listened well. So, I think the state knows how to do this, but I think the legislature, you’re right, either in fear or in just ego feels they don’t want to hear from us.

Phil: Has this not followed the usual development process? Have we not had any periods of public input or any of that?

Dick: That’s correct. The EIR has done the minimum public outreach. It was kind of fun, the consultant the state hired to run the environmental impact report used that term once. Someone said,“Why hasn’t there been more public input and advertising on what’s going to happen?” and he says “Well, we’ve done what’s required by law” and I thought, oh my goodness, that kind of says a lot.

Phil: And that’s another source of frustration. If I were a private developer, I’d be furious at the exceptions that are made. The Golden 1 Arena is a prime example. Dick, I couldn’t believe it, that night I was watching my local news and they showed this rendering and said “Hey, here’s the new arena!” I said where was the design review process on that!? Where was public input on that?! They just showed us a picture and said,“That’s it!” and that’s the one they built.

Dick: Well, I’m glad for your health and your heart that you weren’t present for the last hearing [Phil: Oh boy] where we were treated to a view of what we’ve started calling ‘The Crystal Palace’. The plan is after demolishing the very architecturally sympathetic Annex that is there now there is going to be a complete glass building. Bigger, longer, taller and 100% glass. My first thought—

Phil overlapping: Did I.M. Pei draw this?

Dick: Skidmore Owings Merrill, a very good firm, they know how to do architecture. I was just appalled because of course one of the goals of the project should be not to overwhelm the 1860s Capitol, and this thing is bigger, longer, wider and all glass—it’s just so incompatible. I was just shocked. My first thought was “Oh they’re kidding us, and then they’re going to show the real proposed building,” but no. It’s 100% glass skin.

Phil: This is getting more frustrating the more we talk about it. Okay, so what is it that your organization proposes that we do instead of this boondoggle?

Dick: So, we think we can meet most of the legislature’s space needs doing a renovation of the historic Annex. And, the state knows how to do renovations of historic buildings, they did a fabulous job on the library courts building, right across the street, and has plans underway for the Unruh building—the other 1920s building. The 1950s Annex would be duck soup. We think that the legislature should renovate the Annex. They’ve owned it since it was built, and they’ve done a poor job of upgrading it as codes call for more safety features or replacing the old or overloaded systems—they’ve not been a good steward of that building.

Phil: Well and that’s almost a separate issue here. Now they suddenly want—and what’s the total estimated cost of the project?

Dick: Well it would be over a billion dollars, with interest, to do all three elements of the project.

Phil: When they might have actually been able to get by with just a little maintenance if they didn’t defer it?

Dick: Well, that’s right. In fact, the preservation experts have a term for this. They call it ‘demolition by neglect’. You let the systems get so bad, and they safety features so out of date that— [PHIL: We just got to tear the whole thing down now! Wow.] That’s exactly right, that’s exactly where they are.

Phil: Although, as you mentioned, that it seems the legislature doesn’t think that it applies to them. It seems to me that that is an issue that we run into with historic buildings, that are identified as such all the time and it’s a part of the preservation challenge.

Dick: Well, right. So, California passed a law and put in place a state historic preservation officer, and we have a good one now: Julianne Polanco, she’s a governor appointee; and she’s playing this very, very straight. Until someone brings to her an application for this project, she’s not commenting, not getting involved.

Phil: So, we haven’t even gotten that far in the process?

Dick: Oh, no. Well I’m skeptical.When they architects were competing to win this contract, one of them asked the legislature, “Should we include someone who is an expert, who could help us through the state historic preservation process?”, and the answer came back,“No, the legislature doesn’t fall under this jurisdiction, and I just couldn’t believe it. The building certainly does— [Phil: Might there be a court challenge on that front?] Oh, there might be! We’ve been working very hard through the press, thank you for having us today, and through letters from constituents. We have 7,900 signers of our petition and we share that with the leadership. We think the public outcry and the groups in support, which range from business groups—230 businesses have signed in opposition, chambers of commerce, taxpayer organizations and then the Sierra Club Sacramento group, Trees for Sacramento, Preservation Sacramento, have all written in support of changing this project; but it doesn’t seem to be influencing the legislators. We’ve recently decided, all of you listeners out there, call the governor, write a paper letter to the governor—you can find his address on our website.

Phil: I’m glad you said that, I am convinced that emails just get blown off.

Dick: They don’t get opened. We were able to check that about 80% of the emails to legislators, and perhaps a staffer reads the subject line and makes a tally—I don’t know, but 80% are not open, ouch.

Phil: Yeah, and well that’s one of the nice things about digital communication is that you can track how many of those get opened or not. What is it that you would propose we do going forward? Absolutely great advice, everyone needs to contact the governor’s office and say,“Don’t let this happen”. Listen, it’s one thing to make improvements, it’s another to completely change the character of the building and that’s what they’re talking about doing.

Dick: Absolutely. So, we think that we could study and satisfy their needs through renovation of the historicAnnex. We think the parking has to go elsewhere; I think we’re going to be in electric cars by 2035, that’s just around the corner. We think not a singletree should be destroyed in the arboretum that we know as Capitol Park. So, we just have a very different vision for how we solve the space needs of the legislature. You know, it’s a folly to think that we can build one slightly bigger building and that solves our space needs. In 1860, the whole state government fit into what we call our restored Capitol. By 1920, we needed those two additional buildings across the street, by 1950 we needed the Annex, in the 60s we built state buildings up and down the Capitol mall. You cannot solve the problems with one new building. In Washington D.C., if you visited your member there, you know that their office building calls for them to walk to the chambers through a tunnel. We think that’s an idea that should be explored—that’s a possibility too.

Phil: Well, I’m glad you came in to talk about this and I do agree. Everyone, if you can, contact your legislators, contact your governor and tell them that you don’t approve of this project. Both elements, the new glass Annex and digging up the arboretum are just unthinkable to me. The legislature just seems to be plowing ahead as if people’s concerns are not their concerns is troubling.

Dick: It is troubling. We thought that if we raise the objections reasonably and logically at the Historic State Capitol Commission, that we would get a meeting. Now we’re hoping that if enough people’s voices join ours, and the business and chambers and the preservation groups and the tree preservation groups—that together finally, the leadership of the state says “Hey, we can do something better.”

Phil: I would hope that we succeed in this effort. You know, the groups that you talked about, especially the preservation groups and the environmental and nature groups, those are groups that are historically not at odds with this democratic legislature.

Dick: That’s a very good point. It’s interesting that we find ourselves begging the legislature—where in California we can be proud of the leadership that we’ve shown in preservation and in the environmental movement; I don’t think we have to apologize to any state for how far we’ve come, but on this one it seems like something else is going on.

Phil: Well, it goes without saying that if one of us bought a house downtown that was registered with the list of national historic places, and you demolished it…you’d be finished. They would destroy you. But the California legislature doesn’t seem to think those principles apply to them.

Dick: Since the Alhambra theatre was torn down here in Sacramento, Sacramento has got a very strong preservation group, and the city government has a preservation commission, so the state ought to be listening to its historic—

Phil: Does the city preservation group have much to say about this?

Dick: So, no of course this is state property, state land. They get involved on traffic issues, and they have been, and the palm trees that surround the entire Capitol park are actually city owned trees, so they have a say in that. They have commented, but they’ve stayed within their lane.

Phil: I get that, but it would seem to me that it is still a city issue because it will change the character of downtown.

Dick: So, the city is certainly welcome to speak in our view. At the moment, I think especially Mayor Steinberg, having been a legislator and a leader of the legislature, his voice would be heard if he spoke up on this project.

Phil: Well even though they might not have any jurisdiction there, I think it is important that they say something.If nothing else, just weigh in for crying out loud. Well Dick, I appreciate you coming in and talking about this. Folks, if you want to know more, go to SavCalCap.org. Dick Cowan, thank you very much.