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Renovation May Involve More Than Virginians Bargained For

Richmond's Big Dig?:Renovation May Involve More Than Virginians Bargained For

Mar 9, 2004



The most lasting work being done at the State Capitol over the next couple of years will not be accomplished by the members of the General Assembly or the Governor. It will be done by unknown craftsmen and skilled laborers striving simultaneously to preserve and update the building designed by Thomas Jefferson, as well as the others surrounding it.

The place needs it. Except for the installation of air-conditioning in the 1960s, the Capitol has not had a facelift in a full century. Many of the fundamental systems are shot, and the interior is musty and moldy. Accessibility for the handicapped is marginal at best, and conditions for the staff are cramped. Paint is chipping, and some of the electrical wiring looks like Medusa on a bad hair day.

The other buildings also need work. The nearby Finance Building, for example, has sat pretty much empty for the past two decades. So over the next couple of years the Department of General Services will begin shuffling the top echelons of government about - first restoring the old State Library building and moving the Governor's office and key subordinates there before turning attention to the interior of the Capitol after the 2005 legislative session.

Bob Vila helped restore the Governor's Mansion for "Home Again." The renovation of the Capitol will be "This Old House" on steroids (at least let's hope so - rather than, say, "Tool Time" on a fifth of scotch). The mechanical, electrical, plumbing, storm-water, and air-conditioning systems will be replaced, and repairs too numerous to mention will be made.

AS IF THAT were not challenge enough, the Assembly has ordered the construction of an underground addition to provide extra space for legislators and staff in the nation's second-smallest capitol building (after Maryland's), and a new means of entrance for visitors. The plan has generated some opposition from those who find it variously grandiose, inappropriate, unappealing, or too costly.

Plans - they are incomplete - call for an entrance on Bank Street leading beneath the hill upon which the Capitol sits. Moving northward from the south entrance, you would come to a large exhibition hall, then a "multi-function" area and cafeteria, before reaching elevators taking you up into the Capitol.

Current estimates place the projected price at around $13 million, but such estimates have a way of falling well short of the final cost. The underground complex for the visitors' center at the U.S. Capitol in Washington originally was set at less than $75 million. It now stands well north of $350 million - partly as a result of 9/11, partly as a result of congressional wishes for expansion, partly because of the long lag between conception and execution, and partly because that's just usually the way these things go. Critics note that Gilbane, the company doing the U.S. project, is heading up the proposed project here. A local architect expresses serious doubts that it can be completed for only $13 million. Skeptics point out that the State Senate already has asked for a 20-percent expansion of the underground addition.

Significant differences between this capitol's project and the national one exist. Despite the Senate request, the Assembly is not likely to keep going back for revision after revision. The project is starting after, not before, the national awakening to the terrorist threat. And because of the Jamestown 2007 celebration, the project has a firm deadline.

But there are other objections, such as the aesthetic one: Who wants to traipse through a tunnel? And the practical one: Won't the necessity of riding an elevator to get into the Capitol create a bottleneck for large groups of visitors, such as schoolchildren? And the philosophical: Wouldn't an underground visitors' center amount to a symbolic elevation of the legislators (the Eloi) above the citizenry (the Morlocks)? Douglas Harnsberger, a local architect who serves on the Capitol Square Preservation Council, has commented: "Jefferson would not have condoned a subterranean tunnel entrance. If he were with us today, I imagine he would insist that all Virginia citizens deserve to walk into their hallowed 'temple on the hill' under the sunlight of providence."

THE CRITICS - who liken the underground extension idea to Boston's "big dig," whose costs have exploded like the Big Bang - propose an alternative they contend would save money and give tourists a more fruitful experience: Put a visitors' center in the nearby finance building, with parking and vehicle access in the rear, and run a gently sloping walkway along the contours of the south lawn up to an existing entrance beneath the Capitol steps. A smaller underground space still could be carved out to make room for additional state offices, if necessary.

Higher-ups in the Department of General Services respond that it's possible to war-game a number of different possibilities, to play musical chairs all day long. They think the underground proposal is the best option. They might be right - or they might eventually scrap the idea, just as the National Park Service last year spiked a planned underground visitors' center for the Washington Monument in the face of opposition.

If the voices that have objected to the plans here are not many, that might be because the ears that have heard of it are few. Public discussion has been minimal. One state lawmaker says the entire project was sold as a mere maintenance-and-renovation measure; another wonders how many people realize precisely what is planned. Let's hope the rest of the Assembly members are at least paying attention - because the results will remain on one of America's most historic pieces of real estate long after the last of them is gone.