Community Roundup with Gene Nichols

By Gene Nichols
Community Roundup
February 20, 2022


Gene Nichols: Hi, everyone, good morning, Gene Nichols, back with you, so great to have you with us today, Richard Cowan, former chair of the historic State Capital Commission in California. He's here to talk about the latest plan and what's happening with our historic buildings up at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Richard, welcome. Great to have you here.

Richard Cowan: Hey, great to be with you, Gene. Thanks for having me on today.

Nichols: You are here to shed some light on what's being called the 1.4 billion, billion with a B, Capitol Annex Project. What is it, and what's being proposed to be done?

Cowan: The Legislature owns our Capitol building. It's the only building owned not by theExecutive Branch in California. And what they propose to do is three things, they want to demolish the historic 1950s annex put up a bigger, longer, wider, taller glass Crystal Palace; they want to plop into the front yard, the WestSide in front of the 1860s Capitol, a visitor's center that disrupts the meeting place and the view; and they want to put an underground parking garage into Capitol Park Arboretum, which will wipe out about a 118 trees. So that's the project in a nutshell, a three time loser in my view.  

Nichols: What's the timeline for getting this done?

Cowan: So, it's been in the planning a long time, and those of us who were on the historicState Capitol Commission kept arguing for a different project, a different plan. But we were not heard--kind of say we were speaking an inconvenient truth--the planning is underway and now we've received notice within 30 days, they'll start chopping down the trees, and start gutting the building for asbestos abatement prior to demolition.

Nichols: Is there a better alternative and is there still a chance that could win out, or is this set in stone?

Cowan: It's not set in stone. There are four lawsuits that have been filed to ask the project be halted and alternatives considered. We have these alternatives: we want to rehabilitate the 1950s Annex, it does need modern fire protection, modern exciting and modern HVAC systems--it's an old building, but the state knows how to remodel old buildings. They did a beautiful job across the street from the Capitol, with the library courts building, and are just starting renovating the 1920s Unruh building--the Treasurer's building. We think parking offsite could be done for half the cost. In fact, the state owns vacant land within a block of the Capitol on which an above ground parking structure could go; and, we think there's no need for a visitor center on the West side. We could use, for example, the basement of the existing building where we won't be parking as a visitor center. We could do that, we think for less than half of the 1.3 billion that's being proposed for the three time loser project.

Nichols: We are talking with Richard Cowan, former chair of the California Historic StateCapitol Commission, all about plans to go forward with close to a one and a half billion dollar Capitol Annex Project, which would include demolition of the current Capitol Annex building, and, as Richard mentioned, building a whole brand new one. What do most Californians think about the proposal to get rid of this Annex building and build this big glass Taj Mahal? Or do any of them really know what's being planned, Richard?

Cowan: Well, I'll tell you, it is a project that has been done in secret, and that's one of the issues on which the lawsuits are based. The commission was ignored by the Joint Rules Committee of the Legislature. We think the project should have gone for a public review at the State Historic Preservation Office--it was not. And the lawsuits especially point out failures in the SEQA process. The state on other big projects holds public workshops--the state knows how to do a project well, but the Joint Rules Committee just seems to want to do this. You won't believe it. They even have the employees in the building signed nondisclosure agreements, so they won't talk to their friends about the project. Even the guys doing the air conditioning had to sign a nondisclosure agreement; the people trimming the trees in the park had to sign nondisclosure agreements. So, there's some polling just out, and I can make that available to you, and you might want to be able to pass it on to your listeners; that shows, well, a supermajority of Californians oppose the project as it's currently planned. And of course, that's North and South California, Inland Valley, California. And it's an interesting family of reasons the folks opposing it are, of course, historic preservation, architectural people, tree preservation people, but also taxpayer groups and chambers of commerce who think at least we ought to analyze the less expensive alternatives.  

Nichols: So, who is supporting this big monstrosity to destroy the Annex building and put up this glass one? Is it just lawmakers and people who are insiders in California who just simply want to spend money?

Cowan: Well, I think they want to do more than spend money. They want to add more space. The designs that we have seen, which are very few, unfortunately, show that one of the features of the new, bigger, taller, longer building will be a lovely Galleria where they could hold fundraising events inside. And that's one of the reasons they need a building bigger and taller and longer. But, it's the Joint Rules Committee of the Legislature. So, we think only the governor, the Pro Temp of the Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly could stop this project and go back and think about the less costly alternatives. So, if your listeners would want to contact them, that would be great. We have a lot more information on our website. and you can also donate there if you want to help us with the cost of the lawsuits, we're supporting the two groups that have filed the lawsuit.

Nichols: Is there a way to actually chime in to the Governor or Legislative leaders? Most people aren't going to sit down and write a letter, and most don't have the phone numbers of these people to text them anything. So, is there a place they can go?  

Cowan: Yes, our website has those phone numbers and has those addresses. We have a kind of an automated contact your Governor little click feature, which is pretty nice, but we've been told an actual phone call is tallied, where the emails aren't even really opened. One of those nasty little insider secrets,

Nichols: How would a glass building work in Sacramento when it's so hot and so sunny? That would not seem to be the greatest idea when it comes to energy efficiency, would it?

Cowan: No. Although one can color the glass, putting a film on the glass to reflect sunlight and of course, you can just upsize the air conditioning. I'm more concerned with security. The chairman of the Joint Rules Committee, Mr. Cooley, reported at one hearing he was about $94 million over budget, but people were looking at ideas, and his idea was about two months later, he presented the glass building and said, “Oh, we had to spend the money for extra security features.” The people we know who are in the public security business say a glass skin offers no concealment, and no cover from terrorists. If you're inside and a policeman trying to get legislators to a safe place, you'll be wondering whose idea that glass skin building was.

Nichols: <Chuckles> Richard, finally, is there a timeline for when this project, if it goes forward as planned with no alternatives considered, is there a timeline for when it might be finished?

Cowan: Yes. If we're unsuccessful in delaying it, it will probably be finished in 2025. It'll involve demolition and then excavating down two stories for that underground parking garage and then building the new buildings. Contracts have been awarded. We really need some help in speaking to the Governor, the President Pro Temp of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly; reach in your wallet and help a little to cover these suits, because we have got to turn this project around.

Nichols: Once again, Richard, that website?


Nichols: Folks can go there, get more information, and if they choose to donate, they can do that as well. All the information on this, the proposal to get rid of the Capitol Annex Project and replace it with a new, more modern, and obviously completely glass building. 1.4 billion tax dollars, I would imagine being used, Richard?

Cowan: Yes, and sadly being paid with bonds, which of course, add about 30 percent of the total out of pocket expense over the life of the bonds.

Nichols: 30-year bonds with all the interest. Oh boy, here we go again. Huh?

Cowan: Yep. Alternatives could cut that number in half.

Nichols: Richard Cowan's been my guest, former chair of the historic State Capitol Commission. Richard, thanks so much. One more time that website that folks can go to to do what they need to do to try to help you stop this massive reconstruction and demolition.

Cowan: SaveCalCap, all together, .org.

Nichols: Perfect, Richard. Thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate talking with you and thanks for your expertise.

Cowan: Thank you, Gene.

Nichols: I'm Gene Nichols.