Amid litigation and a lost Democratic seat, group urges California lawmakers to rethink costly Capitol project

By Ashley Zavala
KCRA 3 News
February 10, 2023

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Amid an ongoing lawsuit, continued transparency concerns and voter refusal to reelect the lawmaker who was the face of the effort, opponents of the California Capitol Annex project are urging state leaders to rethink the $1.2 billion plan.

"We want to call on the governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and Pro Tem of the State Senate to pause the project," said Dick Cowan, former chair of the Historic State Capitol Commission. "We've only got weeks to get the attention of our leadership to listen to the public."

Cowan said that demolition on the annex could begin as soon as March if state leaders move forward with it.

Cowan, who helps lead the Save Our Capitol group which has been formally opposed to the project for years, has said lawmakers could have considered what he says would have been the less costly option of renovating the annex instead of bulldozing it. State leaders have said the building, which has served as the main hub for offices for state lawmakers and staff, posed health and safety issues, and claimed tearing it down and building new would cost about the same as a retrofit.

Every corner of the state Capitol shows signs that it may not come to a stop anytime soon. Fences trace the Capitol's east side, where the annex is located. Temporary construction stairwells have been set up while trailers house the new security entrances on the south and north side of the Capitol. Some trees have been in the process of being transplanted and KCRA 3 saw demolition work beginning on the south side's security entrance Wednesday. Construction notices are posted along parking spaces that are now prohibited until 2025.

The Project

The $1.2 billion project is meant to provide a facelift to the state Capitol that includes the new annex, a new visitor's center on the west side, and an underground parking facility.

According to the Department of General Services, the annex has multiple issues that need to be addressed, including spaces that were not accessible for people with disabilities, hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead and aspects of the building that did not meet modern safety standards. The building is nearly 70 years old.

The plan began in 2017 when a study recommended state lawmakers bulldoze the annex and build a new one.

Between 2017 and 2022, the Joint Rules Committee in the state Legislature which oversees the project, scheduled a total of nine public hearings on the plan. In 2020, one of the hearings was postponed and another was canceled.

Public details on the underground parking facility and planned visitor's center are not available on the project's website. The site has not been updated since October 2021.

In 2021, state lawmakers and their staff moved to what's called the "swing space", a legislative office building on O Street, which is about a block away from the south entrance of the capitol. Leaders of the project have said lawmakers cannot stay there because its location "increases barriers for access by the public to lawmaking."

The Lawsuit

Save Our Capitol filed a lawsuit in 2021 against the Department of General Services, the Legislature's Joint Rules Committee, and the California Department of Finance over the project. The group claimed state leaders generated bureaucratic and financial momentum pre-committing to the demolition of the historic annex, violating state environmental laws.

"How tragic that after the Joint Rules Committee failed for decades to properly maintain and upgrade our world-recognized Capitol Annex, Californians are now asked to accept a needless demolition to make it safe and useful again," Cowan wrote at the time.

The group said the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA, protects California's historic resources such as the Capitol Annex and natural resources like the historic trees in Capitol Park. CEQA requires an environmental impact report (EIR) process to study, and prevent significant environmental impacts if possible.

Opponents of the project have said it requires the largest removal of trees at any one time in the park's history, totaling 61.

On top of that, they note 49 large palm trees are expected to be removed and transplanted, a process experts say gives them a 50% survival rate because of their age and size.

Ecologist Paula Peper noted the trees provide several environmental benefits steps away from the building where lawmakers are constantly crafting policies to protect them.

"If we're looking at stormwater reduction, the trees from 2017 all managed to intercept 1.3 million gallons of water, if you put a cost value on that it would amount to $10,000 a year in runoff if it had to be processed at a processing plant," Peper said.

Peper noted trees take in carbon dioxide pollutants, those pollutants are then stored permanently in the wood as carbon dioxide. Half the weight of a tree's wood if dried out is stored carbon.

"I'm most concerned about the carbon dioxide and the carbon storage with the cutting down of so many trees," Peper said. "I find it incredibly ironic for a state that touts it as the leader in climate change."

Last month, California's 3rd District Court of Appeals confirmed an earlier ruling that project leaders violated the law by not properly certifying the EIR, which opponents say kept the public and California lawmakers from commenting on significant environmental and historical impacts.

The court cleared the way for lawmakers to move forward with the annex demolition but noted the project needs to come up with a different vision for the outside, noting the plan's glass exterior design does not blend with the historic Capitol look.

The court also ruled further public review is needed on the parking facility and west side visitor's center.

The Capitol's west side is the most well-known, largest setting for demonstrations and is often the venue for press conferences and protests. If the project moves forward, events will no longer be allowed on that side of the Capitol starting June 1.

It's unclear how long it will take the state to revise the EIR.

In a statement, the leader of the Joint Rules Committee, Assemblyman James Ramos, D-San Bernardino, said Friday, "A portion of the Capitol Annex Project is in litigation, and on the advice of counsel, we have been instructed not to comment at this point.”

The lawmaker who lost his seat and how others are reacting

Former Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley was the face of the project before he lost his seat in the 2022 election. He gave reporters a tour of the old annex and new swing space in 2021 in anticipation of the start of the project, which the lawsuit delayed.

Opponents of the project have said the five-term assemblyman was unseated by Republican Josh Hoover, in part, because of the project.

Assemblyman Hoover, R-Folsom, has urged lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to restart the conversation and reassess the project.

"There need to be some serious discussions on how we move forward," Hoover said. "I'm concerned about the cost of this project, it could be done in a much more cost-effective fashion."

Gov. Gavin Newsom's office referred KCRA 3 back to the Joint Rules Committee for comment.

State Senate leaders were recently asked to weigh in on the project at a Public Policy Institute Forum a couple of weeks ago.

"It was as expensive to rehabilitate an old building as it was to build new so that’s a large part of it and we’re going to continue having discussions as this project moves forward," said Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

"It’s for the Californians, it’s for the public," said State Sen. Brian Jones, R-San Diego. "It has to work and we need to get it to be functional."

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