The Capitol Annex Project: Demolition by Neglect

The Andy Caldwell Show
June 4, 2021

Starts at 21:55

Andy Caldwell: I’d like to welcome our guest, Dick Cowan. He’s got a boatload of degrees and decades of experience. He is well known in the Californian education and public works circles. He’s published widely as well in project management publications; and he was, for instance, the first project manager for California’s first design-build elementary school. He’s been on various commissions, he got his bachelor’s from Cornell, Master’s from Berkeley, and he is of course a registered professional engineer among other degrees and certifications. Dick, welcome to the show!

Dick Cowan: Thank you! Thanks for that introduction!

Caldwell: Well, thank you so much. We have a couple of statewide reporters that come on the show three times a week; so, I kind of think, and I read a bunch of news cycles, that by golly, you’re scooping us here! I’ve never heard of the Capitol Annex Project. It sounds like just another boondoggle, but I’m glad you seem to be the leader of reason and engineering science to why this is not a good deal, and we’d love for you to explain it to our audience. 

Cowan: Thank you very much for having me. It’s kind of no accident that you haven’t heard a lot about this project. All of the state employees and consultants working on this for the legislature had to sign confidentiality agreements that they wouldn’t talk to anybody about it. It’s really an amazing thing that the legislators decided that they needed to spend the money to demolish the Capitol Annex (the newer half of our State Capitol), put an underground parking garage in the State Capitol Park arboretum, tearing up about 60 trees, and putting a new visitor center and new entrance to the public on the West side of the Capitol—where we’ve all gathered to end the tour de California bike race, or hold protests or vigils—we don’t know where we’ll do it once they take that spot away. We think that this is a terrible project, and you’re right! Very few people are hearing about it.

Caldwell: So, what’s amazing to me is—now I know the state legislature can pretty much do anything it wants, it is a power unto itself—even if what they’re doing is against the law, because their reply is “just sue me, just sue us. We’re playing with house money and we’ve got all day.” For instance, how in the heck did they at least try to justify confidentiality agreements as if they—they already own the property, The Brown Act gives certain exclusions for real estate transactions, but not if you already own the property.

Cowan: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve heard a good explanation of why they insisted on that. As you know, the legislature owns the Capitol Building. All the other buildings in the state are owned by the Executive Branch, and the Executive Branch knows how to do renovations of historic buildings, they’re doing another one in Sacramento just as we speak, the Unruh Building. They did a fabulous job on the Library Court Building across the street and of course the Parks Department, which is a tenant in the old Capitol, knows how to renovate and save the core structures all day long. I’m just guessing that the legislature is on new ground here, trying to upgrade their facility. They only do it once every 75 or 100 years, so they don’t have much experience. Maybe that’s the way they thought it ought to be done.

Caldwell: How much of this is driven, no pun intended, by the fact that they want a secure parking spot?

Cowan: Well, they have some legitimate needs. Our groups don’t dispute the fact that it’s a good idea to remove parking from underneath the Capitol Building; although, I just finished touring one of the state buildings that has parking under it. They’re going to move this Fall into a temporary building, they call it the “swing space” building, which is brand new and was built for this purpose, and it has parking within the building—if it’s good for the new building, I don’t know why it isn’t for the old. The building is 70 years old, so it is time to upgrade the electrical equipment, the HVAC air conditioning system, upgrade for access—we didn’t used to have the access laws we have now. Those are all valid things to do; but we know how to do that to our historic buildings, to give them upgrades that they need.

Caldwell: In one of these pieces that I’ve been reading, this was in SacTown Magazine, they bring up an age-old problem that I’m going to talk to you about when we get back because you’ve been involved in school construction and the like. The phrase the guy used was “Demolition by neglect.” This happens all over the place. They don’t upkeep, they don’t do regular O&M, they don’t do all sorts of stuff and then they go “hey folks, we need $100 million dollars to build something new because this thing is falling apart, or whatever.” I want to talk to you about that. Plus, my understanding is that there are spaces available in lots of cities that I keep wondering…could they not tear down an older shopping center that’s mostly vacated, or something like that, or take over other buildings. Just like you said this other place that they’re using right now, why not make it permanent? We’re going to followup with all these things with Dick Cowan. Again folks, $1 billion of taxpayer money is at stake here. Stay tuned, you’re listening to the AndyCaldwell show.

Caldwell: I’d like to welcome you back to our show. We’re talking with Dick Cowan. He’s got a phenomenal resume having to do with construction and the public works projects in the like. There’s a $1 billion project to demolish part of the State Capitol Building and to rebuild something in its place. The way one person characterized this is, this is a demolition project by neglect. Folks, this happens especially with schools; where they don’t spend hardly any money on maintenance and refurbishing and making things up-to-date until it’s too late; and then they come to the taxpayers and say, “Hey we need all this money for a whole new school.” I’m sick of the cycle, I don’t know what we can do about it. Dick, what do you think about that comment?  

Cowan: The comment is perfect. In 2005, the Department of General Services, in the Executive Branch, prepared a beautiful plan showing how they could update the power, the air conditioning, make other utility improvements and to do it all in a phased program and laid out a cost per year. The legislature found this kind of inconvenient to do. You’re right, having turned down that opportunity to upgrade those systems that are 70 years old in a phased approach, and do it year by year—now they say, “Yeah, the building is really old and has all these problems, lets tear it down," just as you described. If this were a private developer who owned a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as this one is, and they came to the State Historic Preservation Officer with this idea, they’d be kicked out of the office. Absolutely denied. But the legislature thinks that they can take this approach. I don’t think they should.

Caldwell: What about office space in the region of Sacramento? Surely the legislature doesn’t have to be next door to everything. I know that there are other state office buildings—I don’t hardly ever go to Sacramento, but I’ve been there a few times—there are other state office buildings in the hood. Could they not build something adequate not far away?

Cowan: In fact, they’ve done it! They’re building what they call the “Swing Building,” which adds to the square footage available for the legislature in addition to the Capitol, in addition to a building across the street from the Capitol, in a building called the “Legislative Office Building.” I think the Joint Rules Committee, led by Assemblymember Cooley had a good idea saying, “We do kind of want to bring the staff that key legislators deal with closer to them, rather than having them spread out.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that idea. But then, as you say, let’s take the staff that do not need to be near the legislators and put them nearby in the brand-new state office buildings. I don’t know; perhaps the Department of Finance doesn’t need to be next to the legislators in the Capitol Annex. I’ll let them work on that problem, but that issue was never tested or costed, and I think it’s a great idea—they have space elsewhere. The Executive Branch said, “Hey wait a minute, due to COVID, we’re learning that people are effective working from home part time. How can we save money and squeeze down our space needs based on this new dynamic of work?” Unfortunately, the Legislature said, “Nah, we’re not even going to think about that.” So, you raise a good point.

Caldwell (overlapping): So, let me have you parse that. Is this Newsom’s project, or is this the State Legislature’s project?

Cowan: The Capitol Building is owned by the Legislature, administered by the Joint Rules Committee of the Legislature. The only thing the Executive Branch is doing on this project is running the environment impact report, or CEQA. Other than that, the private consultants working for Joint Rules are providing the management of the project.

Caldwell: So, has Gavin Newsom weighed in and supported or opposed?

Cowan: The Governor, of course, signed the bill that authorized the project and appropriated the money; and he has one representative on the Executive Committee, underneath the Joint Rules Committee, so he’s watching. We actually think he’s probably the person who might listen to your listeners if they were to write to the Governor. I think that that emails are probably not getting opened a whole bunch these days. We do think the Governor could weigh in, he’s certainly among the influential leaders.

Don’t tear down The Annex, instead renovate it as we know how to renovate others; and for heaven’s sakes don’t tear down 60 historic trees to put an underground parking structure! Didn’t the Governor say we’re going to be out of gasoline cars by 2035 or something like that? Why would we build an underground parking garage in our arboretum?

Caldwell: Where did you—now I haven’t been up there in along time—I know that the legislators up there get a per diem. Do you know how many of them up there have houses or apartments, versus just staying in hotel rooms?

Cowan: I don’t know, I don’t have any of that information. I know you’re right. Most of the legislators, unless they live right in the Sacramento area, have temporary residences so that they can go back to their families on the weekends. I assume there are parking spots in those—

Caldwell: That’s what I was wondering. I’m just wondering how many parking spots they really need; because if they’re staying at a hotel, they’ve got a parking spot at the hotel. I know that when I was there, a lot of them used to just walk across the street from a hotel, and then they walked across the street to a restaurant. I just wonder how much of this is maybe for staff or what. I don’t get it, because most of those people—you know one criticism my entire life is Sacramento is very remotely located from our major population centers except for the Bay Area. You know, if you try to talk somebody to go to Sacramento who lives in Santa Barbara or San Diego or Riverside, good luck with that. Right? It’s the same for these legislators. It takes a lot of them 4 to 6 hours to get there if they can’t fly.

Cowan: Of course, you’re talking to a guy who grew up in Sacramento, so I’ll get all defensive on you. But at one time, Sacramento had way more population than LA, and that’s when we decided where the Capitol would be, and that was during the Gold Rush.

Caldwell: Well fair enough, fair enough. Well, nowadays—I’ll tell you the truth, and this is a piece of history—at one time, San Luis Obispo was looked at to be the State Capitol and then a lot of people thought Fresno was just a little more centrally located, but this was many years later. I agree with you, Sacramento was where it was at during the Gold Rush, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The Bay Area was the other place where it was at because Los Angeles back then was still a Cowtown, in the desert no less. Hey well, it’s a pleasure talking to you. I do hope that reason will prevail up there. I thank you for all the work you’re doing on behalf of the taxpayers and preservationists.

Cowan: Thank you for taking an interest in this. If you’re listeners want to take a look at or, those are two organizations that are among the many—the chambers, the taxpayers associations, 230 businesses, 7,900 petition signers, the Sierra Club-Sacramento group, California Preservation Foundation; I could go on. We’ve got a lot of people who think we ought to do this differently if we could only get the legislators to listen.

Caldwell: Alright, thank you so much.