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Column: Big changes are coming to the California Capitol. And they won’t come cheap

Workers box up the bronze grizzly bear at the state Capitol in Sacramento.
Workers box up the bronze grizzly bear in front of the governor’s Capitol office for relocation to the governor’s temporary office in Sacramento on Nov. 19.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

They’re planning to demolish most of the state Capitol and replace it with a larger, more luxurious structure for about $1.3 billion.

During construction, the governor and legislators will be quartered at a new 10-story building one block away that is costing another roughly $450 million.

The temporary quarters are dubbed the “swing space” because elected officials are swinging in now and will be swinging out when the Capitol project is completed. It’s hoped that will be in time for California’s 175th statehood anniversary on Sept. 9, 2025.

So, a new era is starting in California state government, and its facilities won’t be cheap.

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Slated to be torn down is the “annex,” the east wing that was completed for $7.6 million in 1952, when Earl Warren was governor. It attaches awkwardly to the domed old Capitol, completed in 1874 at a cost of $2.6 million.

The original Capitol was modernized — without being demolished — for $72 million and reopened in 1982. It contains the Legislature’s ornate floor chambers and leaders’ handsome 19th century-style offices.

Before it was recently vacated, the annex housed the governor’s suite, most legislators’ offices, the lieutenant governor, the budget staff and the news conference room, 1190.

That room was created by Gov. Pat Brown late in his second term because he got tired of holding crowded Q-and-As in his tight corner office.

Former state Senate President Pro Tem James Mills died on March 27 at 93. He allied with environmentalists and preservationists across the state, promoting bicycle paths, helping create the Coastal Commission and authoring legislation that saved thousands of historic buildings by providing property tax breaks for owners.

It was state-of-the-art then and still isn’t shabby. In some ways it’s superior to the White House press briefing room. Its 48 seats had more elbow room and sight lines were better for reporters in the back.

Room 1190 was the generator of a gazillion news stories for more than a half-century and an irreplaceable facilitator of government transparency.

But Brown never got to use it much. The Democrat’s 1966 bid for a third term was crushed by Republican Ronald Reagan.

The first time I saw Reagan up close, he was holding forth in 1190 shortly after winning the Republican primary. He was then 55 — just one year older than Gov. Gavin Newsom is now — and I was struck by his command of the room and sharp, crisp, straight-talking answers to reporters’ questions. He wasn’t the slower, softer-voiced President Reagan of 20 years later.

Reagan benefited the most from Pat Brown’s creation because he held weekly news conferences there every Tuesday.

“He wasn’t the least bit afraid of talking to anybody, the press for sure,” recalls George Steffes, Reagan’s legislative lobbyist. “He wasn’t perfect but always answered the questions directly. And I’m sure that’s why he was so successful. He felt press conferences were a good way to get his messages across.

“Looking back, the idea of a governor having weekly press conferences is mind-boggling.”

The only other governor who came even halfway close was Republican George Deukmejian in the 1980s. He held a 1190 news conference about every other week.

In life and at the state Capitol, some things will never go back to the way they used to be.

“They started out as an important communications tool, but they also became a very important management tool. Press conferences tend to keep the bureaucracy on its toes,” Steve Merksamer, Deukmejian’s chief of staff, once told me.

“They knew that if the governor was meeting with the press, they’d better be the ones to bring anything controversial to his attention. They’d be sweating.”

Room 1190 wasn’t large enough to hold the hordes of reporters who occasionally arrived to cover Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s major announcements. So, the global celebrity moved his show to the secretary of state’s huge auditorium two blocks away.

But Schwarzenegger did often use 1190 and reporters waiting there could tell when he was approaching from the dull roar of tourists outside snapping pictures and seeking autographs.

“When Arnold came down the hall it was a spectacle,” recalls his communications director, Rob Stutzman.

By contrast, in Newsom’s three years as governor he has used 1190 only nine times, and not at all since the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. The pandemic aside, this governor has preferred to hold Q-and-As almost anywhere but 1190.

“It’s about photo ops now — 1190’s not a pretty picture for TV,” says Steve Maviglio, who was chief spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis. “You can’t stage anything in there. The best you can do is have a chart next to you.”

In recent years, 1190 also has become a sad reminder — by its increasingly empty seats — of the Capitol press corps’ declining size as news bureaus shrank or vanished.

Once seen as a modern marvel that enhanced the original 19th century landmark in California’s capital city, the state Capitol’s 66-year-old annex was declared by architects and lawmakers on Wednesday to be long overdue for demolition and replacement.

The Capitol reconstruction project has gotten little news coverage despite its whopping cost to taxpayers.

Is the spending worth it?

The six-story annex is a deteriorating relic, says the project’s chief advocate, Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova), chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee.

Fire sprinklers don’t exist above the first floor. Narrow hallways are often jammed and inaccessible to wheelchairs. Asbestos and mold are everywhere. Plumbing leaks. The annex doesn’t match up with the four-story Capitol. On most floors, to trek from one side to the other requires insider knowledge of hidden passageways. And the legislators’ underground garage is ripe for car bombs that could crumble the Capitol.

But opponents are suing to stop the demolition, contending that the project has ignored requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and that more than 100 beautiful Capitol Park trees will be destroyed needlessly.

“There’s no question the annex needs work,” says Susan Brandt-Hawley, an opponents’ attorney. “No one is objecting to modernizing. Our objection is that it doesn’t need to be demolished.”

But if the annex were just gutted and updated, its size couldn’t be expanded from 345,000 square feet to about 500,000. The demolition project has strong political support because it will create lots of construction jobs and enlarge offices — the governor’s substantially.

Just make sure to include a new 1190.

When the old Capitol was updated, legislative leaders wiped out the press offices and grabbed the space for their own fancy digs.


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