New plans bring old questions for MN Senate office project

Plans for a new Minnesota Senate office building came into sharper focus today with the unveiling of an updated design and scale model.

A team of planners has been meeting regularly with legislators, staff and others to gather feedback on many design elements. Architect Jon Pickard said some of those building details will continue to evolve in the coming weeks. He said hopes to see construction begin later this year.

“This is a building that I believe that is very, very responsible,” Pickard said. “It is an efficient building. It is a practical building. It is a reasonable building. But it will also contribute to the dignity of the Capitol district, and I think that is an appropriate goal.”

The $63 million building includes underground parking. An additional parking ramp will be built down the street, bringing the total cost to nearly $90 million. Lawmakers approved the project as part of last session’s tax bill. The building would place Democrats and Republicans under the same roof. But lawmakers from the majority party who chair committees would remain in the Capitol.

The plan must still win approval from both the House and Senate Rules Committees next month before a bond sale and construction can proceed.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House Rules Committee said some committee members have concerns about the project. She said it’s too early to know if it will get the needed votes. Murphy said the building needs to be functional and reflect a “virtue of modesty.”

“I’m continuing to hope we can find space in that building for the Senate as a whole,” Murphy said. “I think 67 Senate offices would be important.”

Asked if the current plans meet her modesty standard, Murphy said the elimination of some building features has been a step in the right direction. The latest drawings, for example, no longer show a reflecting pool outside the front of the building.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the reflecting pool and other features were raising too many eyebrows. Limmer said the new plans are impressive, but he still opposes a project he views as unnecessary.

“There’s no question that it’s a beautiful building,” Limmer said. “It’s just a question of how much do we need.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the new building is needed to make up for the square footage lawmakers will lose once the renovation of the Capitol is complete. It will also provide new hearing rooms that can accommodate large crowds. Bakk said the building cannot be taller than the Capitol, and that prevents housing all 67 members.

“Because of the building constraints that we have, there’s just not physically enough room to do that even if you wanted to,” Bakk said.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said last week that he thinks the estimated price tag is too high, and he directed his commissioner of administration to come up with some cheaper options.