Capitol Annex project violated environmental regulations, appeals court rules

Capital Public Radio
By Nicole Nixon

A major overhaul of state offices connected to California’s state Capitol building will likely be delayed after an appeals court ruled the project’s environmental impact report lacked sufficient analysis of its design.

That prevented the public from meaningful review of and input on the new Capitol Annex building, which is connected to the historic west wing of the Capitol and houses offices for the governor, state lawmakers and their staff.

A majority of the three judges on a panel for the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals in Sacramento found the Department of General Services (DGS) did not include a thorough analysis of the project’s impact on historical resources, aesthetics or analysis of alternatives.

According to the ruling, the “project description, analyses of historical resources and aesthetics, and analysis of alternatives do not comply with CEQA,” the California Environmental Quality Act. Appellate judges ordered DGS, along with the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Rules, to revise and recirculate portions of the project’s environmental impact report for public comment.

“Today, the People of California won,” said Stephen Cook, an attorney for Save Our Capitol, a group fighting to preserve the historic annex and trees on the Capitol grounds. “While it is unfortunate that legal action was required to compel [the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee]  and DGS to follow the law, Save Our Capitol is hopeful that, now, they will properly consider alternatives to the Project which do not involve decimating these irreplaceable historical resources.”

The group filed lawsuits against the annex project last year, arguing it would harm dozens of trees in Capitol Park and that the historic Annex building could be rehabilitated, rather than bulldozed and completely rebuilt.

Appeals court judges took issue with the proposed exterior of the new annex, a “glass curtain” design that looks very different from the white marble of the Capitol’s historic west wing. The glass design was chosen after the project’s public comment period passed.

“This case concerns significant impacts to a treasured historical resource, the Historic Capitol,” the decision reads. “An obvious and key requirement for determining a project’s impact on a historical resource is the project’s appearance.”

When a draft environmental report for the project was originally circulated for public review and comment in September 2019, a final design for the new Annex had not yet been selected. At the time, DGS “broadly stated the new Annex’s aesthetics and materials would be consistent and sympathetic with the Historic Capitol and would create a ‘one-building’ feel,” judges wrote in their decision.

But that changed when renderings were released showing a glass exterior design, which DGS acknowledged was no longer consistent with the historic Capitol’s design, but “compatible.”

The starkly different design aesthetics “may have misled the public about the nature of the Annex’s design and adversely affected their ability to comment on it,” judges wrote in their decision.

The court also ordered DGS to revisit its plans for an underground visitor center on the west side of the Capitol.

As planned, the visitor center would include ramps beginning near 10th Street that slope to an open-air “welcome plaza.” An underground visitor center closer to the Capitol would include a skylight to provide views of the building and safety railings.

Opponents of the design have said it would make protests and other large gatherings on the west side of the Capitol virtually impossible.

An environmental impact report acknowledged the changes would “alter historic features of the West Lawn landscape” including trees, terracing and pedestrian paths. But DGS did not consider alternatives, including building the visitor center on the south side, which became a possibility when original plans for a parking garage there changed.

The ruling says the plans “did not comply with CEQA’s requirement that the [environmental impact report] consider a reasonable range of alternatives,” therefore “thwarting informed public participation and decision-making.”

The appellate court ordered DGS to vacate certification of the project’s environmental impact report. It must revise and recirculate portions of the review for public comment, which advocates believe should be done before any more work on the project is done.

The Department of General Services, which oversees state properties and was named in the lawsuit, declined to comment.

In a joint statement, Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins said they “are reviewing the decision in consultation with the Administration and considering available legal options.”

Annex project now in limbo

State lawmakers and the governor moved into new offices across the street from the state Capitol last year while preparations for construction began on the Annex.

It’s unclear what’s next for the Annex project, which is estimated to cost over $1 billion.

While the Capitol’s west wing – which includes Senate and Assembly chambers, a museum and some offices and hearing rooms – remains in use during construction, the Annex is sealed to lawmakers and the public.

While its demolition was originally planned to begin earlier this year, legal battles have delayed it. Opponents of the project say the state should not be able to move forward with an uncertified and incomplete environmental review.  

The legislative body overseeing the Capitol Annex construction is in flux with a new session having just begun Monday and committee chairs yet not appointed.

The longtime leader of the Joint Legislative Rules Committee, Ken Cooley, lost his Assembly reelection bid, which leaves an opening for new lawmakers to lead the project.

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