By Hannah Wiley
The Sacramento Bee
December 2, 2021
Closing time, one last call for the annex.
California lawmakers this week packed up decades of political history as they moved their Capitol annex offices to the chic new government building across the street where they’ll work for the next four years.
Their relocation kick starts a $1.2 billion plan to demolish the 69-year-old east wing of the Capitol — built when Earl Warren was governor — and replace it with a modernized statehouse, visitor’s center and parking garage.
Gov. Jerry Brown authorized the renovation in 2018 as part of a broader effort to revamp downtown Sacramento’s state government corridors.
The Legislature chose a plan to bulldoze the annex, arguing that asbestos, mold and inadequate safety features like missing sprinklers and limited exits, justify the upgrade.
Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, who’s engineered much of the plan, said the project will restore “hospitality of the building for all Californians.”
“This is a baseline value of the California state Capitol to welcome the public to the people’s house,” he said during a Wednesday press tour of the annex and new government building, dubbed the “swing space.”
The departure marks a bittersweet and historic moment for those who’ve spent years working in California politics.
“Moving out of the building, I think there is sort of a romanticism that comes into play,” said Severiano Christian, who has worked as an intern, fellow and legislative aide before their current role as legislative director for Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco.
“It sounds so cheesy. But for me at least, I recognize the office that I was in ... that used to be Mark Leno’s office, the state Senator from San Francisco,” Christian said. “Think about all of the sort of negotiations and power plays that came to be literally within our office and in the annex in its entirety. We all have our own feelings about politics and stuff, but at the end of the day, that building, there are so many memories associated with it.”
WORKING THE HALLS FOR GOV. SCHWARZENEGGER
Nanette Farag, who served as senior legislative assistant to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is similarly feeling nostalgic.
Farag began working in the building nearly 20 years ago, started her career as an intern and worked her way through the executive suite to chief of staff for former Assemblywoman Catharine Baker. She’s now vice president of political affairs at Randle Communications.
Farag reminisced about the many times she got lost on mismatched floor levels between the annex and rotunda and, in 2004, when the governor’s office flooded during the final week of bill signings.
“Decades of memories and history,” Farag said. “Lots of wins, lots of losses. Lifelong friendships that have started there and will continue on and a lot of great memories. It’s always going to be the Capitol. It will always be special. But it’s like coming into a new era seeing change like this.”
Nghia Nguyen, who’s been working in the Legislature since 2002 and now serves as chief of staff to Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, remembers the age of budget impasses, when members and staff couldn’t leave the building without a deal.
Nguyen said she’s taking her two children, now 17 and 15, to see the building in the next few days so they have a chance to say goodbye. Years ago she used to set up their playpens next to her desk when she was a single working mom.
Though she has “fond” memories of the building, Nguyen said the upgrade is “badly needed.”
“The Capitol is supposed to be the people’s house. But right now, not all people have access to it,” she said. “I’ve been in offices where it’s so narrow, that someone with a wheelchair can’t go to the back like someone else can. And you can’t single someone out like that.”
PRESERVATIONISTS CHALLENGE DEMOLITION PLAN
Construction on the new annex was supposed to begin during the first quarter of 2022, Cooley said. But a handful of lawsuits have already been filed to block the project, including one in Sacramento Superior Court seeking to resolve discrepancies in the environmental review process.
In November, dozens of activists fighting the demolition showed up to the Capitol to urge the Legislature to consider renovation as an ulterior to destruction.
Paula Peper, an urban forestry expert who resigned from the Historic State Capitol Commission due to lack of transparency over the project, said she doesn’t disagree the place needs a makeover.
“There’s no question that the annex needs renovation, rehabilitation,” Peper said. “I understand everybody is thrilled to go to a spanking new building. But there is a history that will be lost. My personal thought is move to the swing space, enjoy it. And renovate the existing annex.”
Cooley said he’s “hopeful the litigation will get sorted out by the spring,” and that the Legislature is in “good shape” to withstand the legal challenges. The new annex is still scheduled for completion by the end of 2025.
When the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 3 for the 2022 session, more than 1,000 people will have moved over to the swing space, a swanky building with plenty of windows and natural light.
Along with legislative suites, the new building will also house the governor, lieutenant governor and hearing rooms. Gov. Gavin Newsom has already moved his office out of the annex and has been working from the swing space since Nov. 22.