Sunday Morning Newsmakers: Capitol Annex Project

KRLA Sunday Morning Newsmakers
By Larry Marino


Larry Marino: Coming up, Dick Cowan is joining us, he’s the former chair of the Historic State Capitol Commission and consults to California public agencies on managing design and construction projects. He resigned from the Commission in protest following the Joint Rules Committee refusal to provide the commission with information on the Capitol Annex Project. We’re going to talk about that project. Grown to over a billion dollars, it could be a boondoggle, it could be wasteful—whatever it it’s going to cost us as taxpayers because they’re going to fund it with bonds that have to be paid back. You know that when you buy something with bonds, it’s about three times more expensive than the original. Dick Cowan, thank you so much for being with us.

Dick Cowan: Thank you for having me Larry!

Marino: We are still in a pandemic; we have a huge homeless problem and there are some folks up in Sacramento that want to spend more than a billion dollars to demolish and rebuild the Annex at the Capitol? Explain.

Cowan: The Annex was built in 1950, it has some problems, which could be corrected for what we think for about a third of what this price tag has grown to. That’s our suggestion; let’s redo the project planning.

Marino: And that suggestion though is falling on deaf ears to those who are just deciding to spend a billion dollars and leave us with owing that back? Explain what some folks in Sacramento want to do here. Again, these are not great economic times; so, what are we doing spending money we don’t have to?

Cowan: The Joint Rules Committee of the Legislature owns the Capitol Building, not the executive branch, which is unlike other State buildings. They (Joint Rules Committee/Ken Cooley) want to demolish the current Annex, build a new bigger, longer, taller Annex with a beautiful galleria inside, a hollow space, they want to build a new parking garage—taking out historical trees from the Capitol Arboretum, and they want to build a new visitor center on the West side, in front of the historic 1860s Capitol. All of that adds up to a heck of a large project.

Marino: It does, and were you saying this thing (Annex Project) has grown in scope? You know, as projects get designed, things go up. Do you think the one-billion-dollar price tag is actually going to be that when it’s done?

Cowan: Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, but you’re right. Capitol projects can be managed to stay in budget, and our Executive Branch actually does a pretty good job of that with its state projects—but I fear this one is not being managed by the same “expertise." The visitor center, that third element, grew in price tag from 29 million to 78 million just in about a year of planning.

Marino: Wow. The project was largely devised behind doors. I thought that government is supposed to be transparent and in the open. Was that not the case?

Cowan: It was not the case. The Historic State Capitol Commission asked for the documents on which decisions were being made on the project, and even though an oversight body created by statute, those documents were refused. After I resigned, I joined a group of volunteers who are attempting to reshape the project, and we made what’s called a “Legislative Open Records Act Request” for those documents and that also was denied.

Marino: What are they hiding Dick?  What’s in those documents that if they seethe light of day, may not look so good?

Cowan: We think there’s first, an absence of doing a real analysis. Asking someone who restores old buildings for a living, a preservation architect: how many of our legislature’s facility goals could we meet if we restore the Annex? We think that question was never asked, and those documents would prove it was never asked. We also think that there’s a governance structure of merely two legislatures making all the decisions, instead of bringing those decisions to the public in an open, Joint Rules Committee hearing—and there’s probably more.

Marino: What could be done to salvage this? Obviously, there’s are some that believe that something needs to be done, there are some issues with the building. Is there a way you could get oversight on this, and do this reasonably? Or is it an all or nothing deal?

Cowan: No, it’s not all or nothing. We think that if the Governor, and the Speaker of the Assembly and the President Pro Tempore of the senate were to decide “Let’s pause, all the information we’ve gathered so far is useful, but let’s go back a couple of steps. Let’s ask about how we can renovate, reconstruct, remodel our existing Annex and use it well. Can we find some offsite parking solutions, like other states do so we don’t have to tear up our arboretum for an underground parking structure?” We think that with the information they have, they could plan the project again. It would take a few months, but we have that time—and come up with something that costs about a third of what we’re about to spend and would save a historic building.

Marino: I don’t want to push the button here, but you know, lots of times organizations and groups push something called CEQA lawsuits on things they want to stop. Have you looked into possibly suing over this? Finding out if the reports were done, that they did the due diligence in talking to indigenous communities? Is there any carbon footprint that would be changed? And, why are they even thinking of a garage, when the state mandate is to move away from vehicles?

Cowan: Yeah that’s a great question. We do believe the EIR, the environmental impact report, process, which is being run in this case by the Department of General Services, does have some pretty significant flaws. We hope that Governor directs the Department not to certify the EIR, but to go back and do that questioning and that studying. If our wish should not happen, we are capable of filing a suit to require it happen.

Marino: Alright, final minute here. What is next? Is there any decision that’s being made? Is there anything our listeners can call on and talk to lawmakers? Who do we need to focus on to say “Wait a second, why are we doing a billion-dollars-plus (project) during a pandemic, homelessness crisis, all sorts of issues in our state—and all you can do is think about redoing part of the Capitol?” Who can they call?

Cowan: We think the person who is more likely to pause the project and ask for it to be done in a more careful and thoughtful way is the Governor. We would ask all of your listeners to write the Governor, and by the way emails probably go into a spam folder, so we think a paper letter, or a telephone call will have more impact. Of course, each listener has a Senator and an Assembly Member, and especially if they have good relationship and trust their Member to act on this—writing and calling the individual Assembly Members and Senators is a good idea too.

Marino: We’re talking about the Annex. For those who don’t know, up at the Capitol, there’s the older part; I kind of think of it as “being in front," the section that has the dome. Then there’s kind of this back park, the Annex that was build that has most of the Legislative offices and things like that. This Annex, that is by the way newer, is the one that needs this renovation. Interesting isn’t it?

Cowan: Yes, the 1860s Capitol was completely renovated in the 1970s. It was California’s Bicentennial Project to renovate that. The state has since renovated the 1920s office buildings that are in front of, or to the West, of the Capitol. The state knows how to renovate our historic buildings, and now it is time to renovate the Annex.

Marino: But not demolish it, as you say. By the way in demolishing, would there be some businesses, construction, unions that would tend to get more money if more work is done, Dick?

Cowan: The building trades are always on the watch to make sure there is work coming for their workers. The renovation takes a good amount of skilled craft to do. Some people even argue that renovation is more demanding of skilled labor than new construction. In any event, California’s construction industry is on fire right now—there’s a great shortage of workers.One could even make the other argument that doing the demolition right now, the state would be paying a premium because labor is in such short supply. So, there’s no need to think of making a project bigger just to try to put people to work.

Marino: Yeah, and shouldn’t we be building housing instead? Isn’t that where the need is, supposedly in California? Anyone who’s looking at where labor and workers should be right now, shouldn’t it be on building housing?

Cowan: We don’t argue that the Annex doesn’t need work, because it does require some updating of its systems. Building codes now call for buildings to be safer than they did in 1950, when the Annex was built. But there is a prioritization of needs. Expanding and making a newer, bigger Annex—we feel should not be a higher priority than fire preparedness, climate change preparedness, housing shortages and costs. Lots of things to us seem to be a higher priority.

Marino: A project largely devised behind closed doors. This is the demolition and rebuild of the Annex at the Capitol. A billion-dollar price tag now, goes out to bonds if it gets done—we as the taxpayers are on the hook for that. Again, I’ve been told a number of times that when you pay back bonds, you are literally paying $3 for every $1 you borrow so that’s what we’ve got in front of us at a time where our state has tremendous needs in the area of COVID-19 and homeless housing and other issues like that. Is that truly the wisest and best investment? My guest says contact the Governor, write the Governor and let him know about this Annex Project—that you don’t want to see it demolished, that they instead should fix it, they can do the changes that way. Thank you so much for being on the program today, it was good to have you.

Cowan: Thank you very much for having us!