BISMARCK -- New features selected for the North Dakota Capitol's only public entrance are meant to improve access and eliminate confusion about where to enter.

The 2019 Legislature authorized $2 million for the project to remodel the former driveway tunnel that is the Capitol's south entrance, where there's a wind tunnel effect and extreme cold in winter penetrates the building.

The Capitol Grounds Planning Commission on Friday unanimously adopted a design concept for the project that will enclose the tunnel and provide entry on its east side, at a cost of just under $2 million.

The tunnel at the public entrance on the south side of the North Dakota State Capitol, currently open on both sides, will be enclosed, with the security entrance being on the east end with added landscaping concepts. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
The tunnel at the public entrance on the south side of the North Dakota State Capitol, currently open on both sides, will be enclosed, with the security entrance being on the east end with added landscaping concepts. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

The design, chosen from three the board reviewed from architect J2 Studio of Bismarck, also incorporates curved paths on the lawn immediately south of the Capitol, along with several handicapped parking spaces closer to the entrance.

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Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who chairs the commission, said the design will improve visitor access to the Capitol, a 19-story tower completed in 1934.

"We have people walking up now from the visitor parking lot and through a driveway that was intended for vehicle traffic," Sanford told reporters.

North Dakota Highway Patrol in 2016 closed all but the Capitol's south entrance to the public due to security concerns related to protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The driveway tunnel was closed to traffic after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, chairman of the Capitol Grounds Planning Commission, and the other six members voted on Friday to move ahead with a $2 million plan to redesign the public entrance on the south side of the state Capitol in Bismarck. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, chairman of the Capitol Grounds Planning Commission, and the other six members voted on Friday to move ahead with a $2 million plan to redesign the public entrance on the south side of the state Capitol in Bismarck. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

The design's curved pathways will be "more commonsense," he said, directing visitors to the entry doors rather than up the Capitol's large staircase, which leads to two revolving doors that no longer provide entry.

"This will make a lot more sense. It will direct the foot traffic to where the actual entrance is," Sanford said of the design.

Enclosing the tunnel will allow for an overflow space or vestibule for visitors to the Capitol during the biennial Legislature, he added.

Some members of the commission expressed concerns for maintaining the Capitol's architectural integrity and providing adequate accessibility for people with disabilities.

"This belongs to the people, so I think it's important we really make them feel comfortable and at home," said Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown.

The project's bid process will open in March. Construction is set to begin in April, with visitors rerouted to the Capitol's west entrance.

The remodeling project is set to be completed in December 2020, before the 2021 Legislature convenes.

“The south entrance hasn’t changed since the Capitol building was constructed in 1934,” Facility Management Director John Boyle said in a statement. “The update will include an Americans with Disabilities Act compliant pathway leading to the entrance for improved accessibility.”

It's unclear what specific security components might be incorporated into the new entrance. The Highway Patrol controls the Capitol's security, which includes a metal detector and X-ray machine at the south entrance.

Sanford said future discussions of improvements to the south entrance will explore landscaping, signage and lighting of the Capitol mall.