By Hanh Truong
The Sacramento Bee
August 2, 2023
For months now, blanketed gates block views of parts of the Capitol from passersby and drivers cruising on L and N streets.
And peeking through the green barriers, a demolition machine can be seen on the east side of the state Capitol, crushing the white building into gray dust and debris.
The highly-debated State Capitol Annex Project has been underway since the beginning of July, with crews razing the historic building — which had once housed the governor and legislature’s offices.
A reader asked Bee Curious, a series in which reporters answer local questions from the community, about the goals and progress of current construction being done on state buildings in Sacramento, including the Capitol annex. Here’s what we know.
STATE CAPITOL REMODEL
The annex was mostly demolished by late July. The project’s three main focuses include constructing a new annex, making an underground parking garage for the new building and creating an underground visitor center.
The $1.2 billion endeavor is an effort to modernize the Capitol.
According to a 2021 fact sheet from the project website, re-building the annex is necessary to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, update building codes, such as a sprinkler system, and address safety hazards.
Other issues that will be a focus during the remodel, according to the Department of General Services’ Real Estate Services Division website, include removing asbestos, lead and mold, lack of space for staff and outdated plumbing and electrical systems.
The Capitol demolition unearthed criticism from the beginning.
The DGS was under fire for the project’s frequent evolution from its draft environmental impact report.
After publishing the draft EIR to the public in 2019, according to the state Office of Planning and Research website, the draft was re-evaluated to reflect new designs, which included adding ramps instead of stairs in visitor center. A final EIR was certified and the project was approved by DGS in 2021. Before the final report was released, modifications were made to the annex design and parking structure.
“In the final EIR, DGS determined these project modifications would not result in any new significant impacts or substantially more severe significant impacts than those addressed in the draft EIR and the recirculated draft EIR, and they would not require any new or different mitigation measures,” the Office of Planning and Research stated.
Conservation groups have been protesting the project since its approval. The coalition Save our Capitol and unincorporated association Save the Capitol, Save the Trees took DGS to court, arguing that the EIR analysis did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, according to the court judgment.
The groups assert that DGS did not have a “stable project description” and further violated the act by not re-sharing the EIR before certification, not efficiently exploring alternatives to the demolition and not thoroughly analyzing cultural impacts such as aesthetics and traffic.
According to its website, Save Our Capitol aims to save the West side of the Capitol, including the West Steps, historically known for their architecture and accessibility for public assembly.
The case landed in the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which ruled in January that DGS did not provide the public with the full picture of the project or thorough review of how it would affect “historical resources and aesthetics.”
The court decided that the department also did not properly consider alternative designs or renovations to minimize destruction.
DGS was required to recirculate a revised EIR for public review and comment, according to a blog post by Save Our Capitol on July 14.
The new EIR was sent out in April, with the comment period closed on June 15.
WHAT PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE ON THE CAPITOL ANNEX?
The annex replacement and parking garage were set to be completed in the summer and winter of 2025, respectively, according to an overview by the Joint Rules Committee in 2019. But the ruling will likely cause delays.
The visitor center was supposed to be done at the projected date of winter 2021.
The Bee reached out to multiple sources related to the project to inquire about the project timeline and progress, but did not receive an answer.
The DGS referred questions to the Joint Rules Committee.
A press secretary for Senator John Laird, who is the Vice Chair of the Joint Rules Committee, said that the senator has no comments at this time, as the project is still in EIR review period.
After reaching out to Assemblymember James Ramos, who’s the chair of the committee, Ramos and Laird shared the following statement via email to The Bee on July 25: “The Annex project is in litigation and we won’t be discussing it on the recommendation of counsel. The California Highway Patrol will continue to issue permits for use of the Capitol grounds until further notice.”
The CHP handles law enforcement issues on state properties.
When asked about which parts the public can view of the Capitol and whether people can view the demolition, CHP spokesperson Jaime Coffee stated: “The Joint Rules Committee of the California State Legislature will oversee the construction of a State Capitol building annex or the restoration, rehabilitation or reconstruction of the current State Capitol Annex.”
No agency, department or lawmaker gave a timeline or progress update.