Capitol Weekly Podcast: Revisiting the Capitol Annex

By Tim Foster
April 25, 2022
Capitol Weekly

In our discussion with lobbyist and author Chris Micheli last month we touched on the status of the Capitol Annex Project, the billion-dollar-plus update to the historic state capitol that is currently underway. While the legislature and Governor have already moved, and construction has begun, lawsuits are challenging the legality of the effort and could the halt the Annex Project. What happens then?

Our guests today, Dick Cowan and Paula Peper, are leaders in the effort to halt the Capitol Annex Project – they are former members of the Historic State Capitol Commission and offer their perspective on why the plans for overhauling the state’s Capitol need to be rethought.


John Howard: Welcome to the Capital Weekly podcast. I'm John Howard and I am joined by my colleague, Tim Foster; and our special guests today are Richard Cowan and Paula Peper, both who have served on the State Capitol Historic Commission, and that's what we wanted to chat about today. The Capitol project has gotten a lot of attention. The so-called swing office space has been completed, and it's actually in its action operation right now. Kind of a weird building for me—I'm kind of an oldie, so I like old buildings. This one's very strange, not even any elevator buttons in the elevators, but we want to talk about that and what's next in the next in the Capitol Annex project and anything else you guys would like to talk about? Richard, Paula, thank you very much.  

Tim Foster: Well, I should say, John, that we also already started this conversation a few episodes ago on accident when we had Chris Micheli on in our conversation just sort of wandered into this territory, not an area of expertise with Chris, although he was quite informed, you know, for someone that's—

Howard: Yeah, we'll get to that, sure.

Foster: –But anyway, so we do, you know, we're coming back to revisit this in more depth this time around.

Howard: So, Richard, I guess maybe first question to you. Where are we on this? What happens now? One building has been finished. Others, I guess, are in construction and we have the Annex to talk about. Now what happens with that?

Richard Cowan: So yeah, we're at a very interesting time in the life of the Capitol Annex Project, the Swing Space building has been completed—and by the way, the Executive Branch of the state of California really knows how to do good projects. All of the designers and builders in California compete very heavily to win projects with the Department of General Services for office space or renovation and rehabilitation of our historic buildings. The Unruh building, right across from the Capitol, won national awards for preserving a beautiful architectural treasure while modernizing it with fire sprinklers, new elevators, new exiting, all of the safe air conditioning and air change things we now want and energy conservation, while preserving all of its architectural history and beauty. So, the Swing Space building is a nice building. It's got parking for all of the legislators and the Governor's senior staff. And so it's going. The Annex project has got three elements. One is to do something about the 1950s Annex building. One element is to provide a visitor center on the West side where you see our historic 1860s Capitol vista from Tower Bridge and its beautiful facade and grounds and trees.And the third is to dig up Capitol Park—and we should let Paula Peper explain about the tree loss with that—to build yet another parking garage in addition to the one in the Swing Space. 150 car spaces. And Paula, how many trees do we lose if we have 150 spaces?

Paula Peper: Well, just for the parking area, we're looking around 30 trees being cut down. But for the overall study, or the overall project, we're looking at 150 trees being impacted. And if you think less than 10 years ago, there were a thousand trees in Capitol Park. Now there are 860, and that's because we lost 10 percent with the last drought that ended in 2014.

Howard: The trees on the East side, excuse me, theAnnex. I'm looking at the Capitol say from the corner of 11th and L, the Annex is on the East side, and when you mentioned the 800 trees, I know you have a background, environmental and ecological background, is that... Are those trees coming out of that East section of the park as well as the West section or both?

Peper: Both. I mean, they're going to be 32 trees, according to the Environmental Impact Report that will be removed from the West Side around the West Steps. That wonderful "people's porch" that we have, but they're really going to be lost on all sides of the Capitol.

Howard: And there's legal there court suits there, or there's court action going on now? I thought I talked earlier with Kassy—and we talked about this earlier—she said there are several suits right now involved in this project. Where are we on the legal front? Do you have any idea there?

Cowan: Okay, yeah. So, there are four lawsuits filed by two different organizations. One argues that the Legislature made a secret pre-commitment to demolition only prior to doing its planning and its environmental impact process—the CEQA process—to claim all of the errors and mistakes made in the environmental process, the CEQA process, of which there is a pretty good, long laundry list and the fourth outside of the CEQA process, says that the Legislature failed to go to the State Historic Preservation officer, as every authority of the state of California is required to do by statute early in the planning of the project--and we have a very good state historic preservation officer. She plays right down the middle. She's fair, but she would have given them the information they would have needed to make a balanced decision on how many of their goals they could meet by rehabilitating the Annex. And you know, it's kind of like, don't ask the question if you already know what the answer will be and you don't like the answer. They forgot to do that, conveniently. And so, that's the subject of the fourth lawsuit. All of them are in the process of being briefed, and hearings will occur in May. But you know, some of...I mean, this could drag out till September, October I'm afraid. Even the expedited process for the CEQA cases could go into the later part of the year.

Howard: Well, there's a lot of fighting in Sacramento. There has been for years over the California Environmental Quality Act and in specific cases it's been waived—I'm thinking of a sports stadium downtown. That's probably not the only one. There are others. But here you have state construction getting involved with CEQA, and I think there's a general sentiment to weaken CEQA, as we go through this next legislative session. At least I've heard a lot about that. Do you have any sense about that, CEQA...or should it be weakened?

Cowan: Yeah, Paula? What do you think?  

Peper: From my perspective, CEQA kind of belongs to the people and the laws there are to protect more of the interests of the people. So, I find it particularly disturbing that our Legislature works for projects that they support to find their ways around CEQA by passing new laws and regulations.

Howard: Yeah, what's the timeline on that? when we talk about the court--so there are several, you mentioned there are four out there. Do you have any sense of what the timeline is on those? And is there a clock ticking here that there has to be the decision before work on that Annex-- more work on the Annex starts.  

Cowan: Well, among the things the Legislature did in funding this project, they close to a very narrow window, the right of the people to seek any injunction. They were successful in closing that window. So, the work is continuing apace while the lawsuits are being heard. And of course, if the judge were to find that the lawsuits are correct, that pre-commitment was made in violation of the law, EIR processes required by the law were not followed, and the SHPO visit was not done; Then the state would be at risk of restoring back what they're currently doing, and Paula would shake her head and say "There's no going back on those beautiful old trees that have already been cut down." That's irreversible damage that has occurred. So, we think the—

Howard: —Are these all federal, excuse me, are these all-state suits? We're not talking about it in the federal venue, right?

Cowan: That's correct. Three of them are under the CEQA, the California court system. One is a state suit, but outside of the CEQA.

Howard: Paula, when we talk about the trees getting cut down, the trees and Capitol Park aren't like a lot of trees in our yards, I mean, these are exotic, maybe, you know, from around the world, there's an amazing variety of foliage and trees in the park. Can you kind of describe the variety, the arboreal variety in Capitol Park a little bit? 

Peper: Oh yes. Of the 860 trees that exist right now—Actually, seven fewer because they've cut them down for this project—There are 210 unique species, and I used the area for years to train my crews when we travel all over the United States to take measurements of trees because we were involved with developing software so that cities, and now nations, can analyze the ecosystem services provided by their trees. And that's what's really interesting about this project because, you know, the Governor and the Legislature really is touting climate change nowadays, but there's a form of animism happening. It's like, climate change is bad for everybody else, but we can remove these 150 trees. That's another 17 percent of all trees lost, so 27 percent we'll lose within one decade. And I conducted a park wide study in 2017 and presented it to the Historic State Capital Commission and Legislative representatives. And the trees provide, you know, not only shade and beauty and historic context, but perhaps more importantly, the services they provide us every single year. I mean, they intercept the same amount of carbon dioxide given off by 804 tanks of gasoline every year from our cars. And they take this and they store it in their wood and roots. And that's 4.1 million pounds of carbon. Their storage is important for climate change. If all these trees get removed, it'l lend up going into landfills. Then, you know, back into the atmosphere.

Howard: <Muffled>. I'm sorry, go ahead.

Foster: You know, I had a question. I was over at the Capitol maybe a couple of weeks ago and I saw that they were taking some trees and they had them in slings and they had dug out and were moving trees. I didn't see any being cut down. You know,  they may have already done that, but it looks like they're moving trees. Do you know are they moving them within the park or they're moving them to other locations or what? What can you tell us about that? It was fascinating because these trees were huge, and it's basically sitting in a diaper and being to make a fascinating look.

Peper: Well, and you'll see if you go to the Northside of the Capitol that one of the Senegal Palms is already dead, that they were trying to remove. They are moving all of these--not all of them--from the East Side, they're relocating 39 trees. But those will go into different parts of the park. But there's something that all of us who are consulting registered arborist use, and that's the ANSI guidelines for tree relocation. And they say in the Environmental Impact Report that they're going to follow that, but they aren't. You saw the trees in slings. First, what they did was they excavated all these trees and they boxed them in their excavated holes. They used boxes that were too small, and they did not follow the guidelines, and then a month to two months later, they've been relocating these trees.

Howard: Was the relocation outside the park?  

Peper: No, it's to the...most of the trees will be going into the Eastern side of the park. The already more treed part of the park. But their survival is questionable. You know, they're going to move 49 palms, palms that line L and N the street. Some of the largest ever moved—they were planted in the 1890s, up to 1908—And these trees... Sacramento, the city of Sacramento, has had about a 50/50 success rate. And you already see the Senegal Palm, which is much smaller and it's dying, or it's dead. So, I don't have a lot of faith in this so-called relocation.

Howard: If they do build on the West side of the Capitol, an underground garage, that means that it's not far enough underground that there would be enough earth and dirt above them to sustain tree roots, I take it. So, that whole...whatever area that is, would be bereft of trees if it went into effect was completed?

Peper: Actually, that's the underground garages on the East side of the Annex. And it goes from N street to L street along what was known as the 12th street corridor. And that's where the most damage is happening right now.

Howard: With the underground garage underneath the Annex as it exists now, is that going to be...that'll be taken out I take it? Will that be changed?

Cowan: Yeah. So, the plan that we're hoping to pause or stop and go back and re-plan demolishes the Annex completely, including its underground parking garage. And we agree, by the way, having parking, vehicle parking and loading docks underneath the footprint of important public buildings is not something we want to do today. We don't argue with that. We don't argue with the fact that the air conditioning system is old. We don't argue with the fact that exiting in buildings today is done better than it was in 1950, and signage is better, and power is a greater need now we all have printers, and many more electric devices than we had in 1950. But we think there are other ways to solve that legislatures space needs than demolishing a building. That's, and I'm going, to say only 70 years old. We heard it on your last program, someone say, "Well, a building is 70 years old, it's time to come down." No!

Howard: 70 years old is very brief. I can tell you that for sure.  

Cowan: I got to tell you, I'm feeling the same. I worked on the 1960s Capitol renovation when I was a young engineer, just out of the Navy in the Vietnam era, and I got to tell you, we love the quality of the restoration work we were able to do, and the people who now live and work in the 1860s Capitol find it really comfortable and safe and up to date, we could do the same thing in the Annex. My idea, and I'm not an architect, would be to use the current basement as where we need more legislative meeting rooms and hearing rooms because we can park in the Swing Space building that's already paid for. We think the renovation can be done for half the price of the demolition and new build, and the state is very expert at doing rehabilitation of historic buildings. The Legislature, by the way—your listeners may not know—theLegislature only owns one building in the whole state, and that's the Capitol.All the other buildings are owned by the Executive Branch. So, how have they done in taking care of their one building? We only gave them one building. TheDepartment of General Services did a study in 2005 and laid out the plan for improving the air conditioning space, upgrading the power, improving the exiting, doing all of the things that needed to be done. Now living in a house while you remodel the kitchen is not fun. I've done that, and I know it's not fun. The Legislature found it inconvenient to follow DGS's plan, so it' Paula and me this seems really sorry now to say, "Oh, we need better air conditioning, we need better power. So, let's demolish the building." I know Tim, John, if your hot water heater breaks, are you going to demolish your house? If your roof leaks or are you going to demolish your house? No, you're going to do the prudent things that owners do over time to expand the life of your property. The Legislature failed to do that, and it's a little… I don't know, not a not a good mark on them that they now say, "Oh, but we have problems we must demolish".

Foster: Well, here's a question for you. So, one of the things we did touch on the last time we discussed this issue is that the Legislature can pass new laws. And in fact, there was a CEQA problem with UC Berkeley and they were not going to allow a student—I think 10,000 students were not going to be making it in—and so in response to the judge's decision, they came back, and they passed a law making that legal. Are you concerned that even if they lose these lawsuits, they would just turn around and pass a new law that allowed whatever they want to do with the Capitol and allow this all to continue despite a judge's ruling, is that is that something you're looking at?  

Cowan: What do you think, Paula?

Peper: Well, I think, you know, it's definitely possible that they could do that. But as these lawsuit decisions come out, I think there will be a lot of coverage. Finally, publicity about what decisions are. If our organizations win our lawsuits, I think it would make it a little more difficult for the state to just go ahead and pass new laws. The public will be irate more than they are now. I mean, our organizations are unlike any other organizations that have fought these things before. We have taxpayers, environmentalists, architects, just the public, just this huge variety of people who are opposed to this. Just to mention the fact that we did a poll statewide and over 70 percent of those polled were completely against this project.  

Howard: Are projects all halted until the suits are resolved? Are they in abeyance until the courts decide or the projects go forward? On the one hand, the projects go forward, on the other hand, the suits are in court. Is that... how does that work? I have no idea.  

Cowan: Yeah, that's the problem. The CEQA law contemplates that even under an expedited calendar, one can file the lawsuits and timely have them resolved in the fact that immediately after approval of the EIR, you know, there's a procurement process and getting ready for construction. So, environmental issues can be resolved and not delay projects, that's the purpose of the expedited. In this case, the state took five months to produce the record it was supposed to have available last September. And so, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of now having the suit only now being heard and construction work is going on. The sculptures have been removed from the East side of the Capitol. He's the sculptor who did all of the wonderful artwork for the San Francisco World's Fair. Wonderful sculptures. And we don't know what else is going on inside, the building is kind of blocked off. We would like to believe that the Joint Rules Committee is going to be a good steward. Ladies and gentlemen, and that it will not begin doing destructive demolition while the court cases are being heard. But the law is not currently preventing them from doing that.

Howard: Was there any process of bringing the apse back? I saw these old historic photos. It was beautiful and it just seemed like such a, you know, just a wonderful piece of part of the architecture of the Capitol and it fit right in. You know, is there any talk about that or is that not happening?

Cowan: Yeah, it's not happening. It was a beautiful piece. If you subscribe to the idea that the Capitol should be a building, that communication flows as well as it currently does. If you try to make the connections only on the North and South and leave room for an apse, then no one can see it from outside the building because you blocked it off with the connections. So, no, I'm sure that got studied because all of us who are interested in preservation agree with you. That was a terrible thing to lose.

Foster: So, that's one thing I was actually—John beat me to the question— I'm wondering this is not the first time the Capitol has undergone a significant change. You know when they tore down the apse and builtthe Annex 70 years ago? Now, are you aware of any similar movement to what youare doing now that was in existence back then? What were folks fighting topreserve the apse and fighting to get rid, get rid of the plans for the Annex back then? Are we…is this just another revisiting of what happened 70 years ago?

Cowan: You know, that's a wonderful question. I don't know the history of opposition to the Annex. I know that the architect who designed the Annex was very sensitive to—he was ahead of his time. Today we have the Secretary of the Interior Guidelines for the rehabilitation of historic buildings, and among the things it says to do is to use materials that are sympathetic to the original building you're adding to. If you can, be narrow or shorter, try to not overwhelm the original building. Alfred Eichler succeeded at that, as he succeeded in designing lots of beautiful buildings and the Tower Bridge. And he was a state employee. It's kind of fun the history of that design. He used lightweight concrete, which was very in its infancy at that time, so that he could make a light building because he wanted it to rest on a matte foundation, just basically a thick concrete slab, rather than try to drive piles next to the brick 1860s Capitol, which had not yet gone through its restoration. And so, he was a very, very clever designer. There's also a list of things the Secretary of the Interior says not to do when building next to a historic registered building, and the designs that we've seen from the Joint Rules Committee violate all of them. The materials are not sympathetic. It's wider, taller, longer than the 1860s Capitol is. It's, I mean, it's really shocking that they think this is an appropriate design to marry up to our 1860s Capitol that we all love. Just shocked. You know, when that design came out, I almost fell over.

Howard: I had a question for Paula. You'd mentioned the trees, some of which had been planted in the 1890s. How old are some of the trees and Capitol Park? Do we have any older than that or is that our—

Peper: Oh no. You know, the 10 or so Deodar Cedars that are on the West side that are just so beautiful, they were planted in the 1870s. And there are several others. And unfortunately, at least four of those trees will be damaged with the development of the underground, or partially underground, visitors center. Their roots will be cut in order to make room for this new visitor center. And when roots are cut, the crowns of trees are affected. And so, you know, I mean, the park people have been doing a great job, especially in the last four years of maintaining the trees in the park. But you'll notice if you look at historic photos, there's a lot less crown to those trees. They're old, but they're being babied, and I don't think cutting the roots is going to help them along.

Howard: Well, fair enough. Paula, thank you so much. Paula Peper, thank you for joining us. Richard Cowan, thank you so much for joining us today. It is great we could go on forever on this. I love trees. I like the Capitol, too. So, Richard Cowan, Paula Peper, thank you so much for joining us and chatting about trees in the Capitol and the restoration projects.