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New Senate office building design plans approved by panel

2013 courtesy image of a proposed Legislative Office Building to be built next to the State Capitol. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Administration.

ST. PAUL -- In less than two years, visitors could enter a new state Senate office building with a three-story glass façade that would offer what the designer called "powerful views" of the iconic marble state Capitol across the street.

That concept moved a step closer to reality Tuesday when the state Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board approved design plans for the $63 million office building and a $27 million public parking ramp a block west of the new building.

The controversial project is not a done deal yet. The designers still must get board approval for landscaping around and some mechanical details inside the building, and the House and Senate rules committees must give it a final green light. It's also being challenged in court.

But the board's blessing "allows the design team to proceed" with planning the structures, said Wayne Waslaski, the Department of Administration's director for real estate and construction services.

The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Jan. 15. The House rules panel has not yet scheduled a hearing on the matter. But if it acts soon, construction could start as early as March and be completed in 18 months.

The project is controversial because of the way the Legislature OK'd it. With little public debate, lawmakers tucked the authorization into a massive tax bill that passed in the final minutes during the last night of the legislative session in May. At that time, legislators didn't know how much the structure would cost, and they didn't have to vote for the funds to pay for it.

The building will be financed through a "lease-purchase agreement," which allows the state to lease the structure from the builder with an option to purchase it. The state would borrow money to pay for the lease, and the Legislature would have to appropriate funds every two years to finance the debt service.

The planning board approved the design on a 7-3 vote, with dissenters questioning the project's financing.

"I have great concern about moving forward" when state finance officials have not yet firmed a process for funding it, said Republican Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, a planning board member and architect.

Another board member, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, agreed. "We don't know exactly how it will be paid for," she said.

Dean also noted that a lawsuit is pending to block the planned construction. Former state Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, filed the suit in October, contending that authorizing the project in a tax bill, instead of the usual bonding bill, violates a state constitutional requirement that law embrace only one subject. A hearing on the suit is scheduled this month in Ramsey County District Court.

If building construction starts before the financial and legal issues are resolved, "it will be hard to stop," Dean warned.

Other Republicans have criticized the project as an example of wasteful DFL spending and plan to make it an issue in this year's legislative campaigns.

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, the planning board chair, said financing the building is "an issue for the Legislature. Our responsibility is for its design." Her view prevailed.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in June the new office building is needed in conjunction with the $241 million renovation of the deteriorating Capitol building. Senators will be moved out of the building while that work is being complete and then lose much of their current Capitol office space to make room for new elevators, stairways and restrooms.

Currently, the 39 senators in the DFL majority have offices in the Capitol, and the 28 Republican senators are housed across the street in the State Office Building.

Under the approved design, 44 senators from both parties and their staffs would relocate to the new building, and 23 others -- the DFL and GOP leaders and committee chairs -- would retain offices in the Capitol.

The "heart" of the new building would be the main floor with large, open public gathering spaces that look out on the Capitol through a "sweeping curve" of a glass and stone wall, said Jon Pickard, the principal designer with the Pickard Chilton architectural design firm. Large committee hearing rooms, which the Capitol lacks, also would be located on the main floor.

Senators and their staffs would have offices on the top two floors. A two-level, 265-stall parking garage would be built under the building.

To ease a shortage of public parking in the Capitol area, the plan calls for constructing a new, three-level parking ramp with 210 stalls at the corner of Rice Street and Sherburne Avenue.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.