You can’t get there from here: State capitol renovation work poses challenges this session

Attending a rally, speaking at a legislative hearing or visiting state lawmakers takes time and planning for members of Minnesota’s disability community. In […]

This activist and others like her will not be in the state capitol rotunda during the 2015 legislative session, as the space will be renovated.

Attending a rally, speaking at a legislative hearing or visiting state lawmakers takes time and planning for members of Minnesota’s disability community. In 2015, it’s going to get a lot more complicated. Ongoing capitol renovations will cause plenty of headaches and confusion.

A $272.7 million comprehensive restoration is underway to restore and preserve the 1905 capitol building. Work began in fall of 2013 and will continue into 2017. An infrastructure update for the entire capitol complex is going on at the same time. Currently the capitol is clad in scaffolding.

While the capitol will remain open to the public, areas will be off-limits at times. Offices will also move to temporary quarters as the work continues. Everyone visiting needs to be ready for noise, dust and commotion.

Legislators will meet in regular session over the next few years. House and Senate chambers will be open. But only three rooms, on the ground and first floors, will be available for hearings this session. The three rooms are smaller than some of the rooms typically used.

Advocates as well as staff from disability community groups are urging everyone to plan ahead before paying a visit or scheduling a rally at the capitol this session.

“We may just recommend that they close the state capitol down,” said Joan Willshire, executive director of the Minnesota State Council on Disability (MNSCOD). MNSCOD is closely tracking the capitol renovation project. Willshire warned those at an October 18 Minnesota Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities (MN-CCD) meeting that access will be difficult.

Planning ahead is going to be essential, according to disability community leaders.  People should check to see where their representatives and senators will have offices this session, as some offices may have moved. Another factor to be mindful of is that it will likely take more time to get from one place to another.

Yet another bit of advice is to use a bathroom before setting out for hearings and meetings, in the event an accessible restroom cannot be found. There will be an accessible restroom on every floor of the capitol. By the Metro Mobility dropoff, plans call for an accessible portable
toilet facility.

Staff from the Department of Administration said they know the public will be inconvenienced this legislative session. They also urge that visitors plan ahead before visiting. Curtis Yoakum, assistant commissioner for communications and planning and Wayne Waslaski, senior director for real estate and construction services, outlined the changes this session.

“We’re asking everyone to bear with us,” Yoakum said. About two-thirds of the capitol will be closed this session. “That really does confine our space.”

Many meetings and hearings are likely to move to the nearby State Office Building. That already-busy place is expected to be jam-packed during the legislative session. How that building’s space will be used won’t be finalized until after the November 4 election.

One of the biggest challenges will be for groups staging rallies. Disability Day at the Capitol always draws a huge crowd, as do disability or cause-specific gatherings. But the rotunda won’t be available for rallies this session. Nor can the capitol steps be used. Waslaski said groups could ask to use space on the upper and lower malls.

While some at the MN-CCD meeting joked about being hardy Minnesotans, others questioned the wisdom of asking people to be outside for rallies, which can last for an hour or more when setup and cleanup are factored in.

Instead, state officials are working with owners and managers of surrounding facilities, to see if rallies can be moved there. Possible venues include the Minnesota History Center, the state armory, area churches and the Capitol Ridge Inn (formerly the Kelly Inn.) “There just isn’t going to be any space in the capitol building where rallies can be held,” said Yoakum.

Not having the rotunda available means that there will be changes to the annual “Faces of Disability” event at the capitol. Instead of a large display to spotlight key issues, smaller displays will be placed in front of legislators’ offices, said Alicia Munson of Opportunity Partners. She is a co-chair of MN-CCD’s Grassroots Advocacy Committee.

Some aspects of the legislative session will stay the same. Munson said that Tuesday at the Capitol and the Friday legislative updates will be held this session. Check the MN-CCD website before attending meetings, in case those gatherings have to move.

One improvement people may notice is parking. Aurora Avenue in front of the capitol will have nine to 10 accessible spots. Ramp F, which is on Rice Street near the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) building, will have 10 public accessible spots and additional contract accessible spots. The ramp has a tunnel to the State Office Building. There are also four disability parking spaces are on John Ireland Boulevard to serve the MnDOT Building. Lot D still has 12 spaces for those currently needing to visit the State Office Building.

Lot B north of the capitol isn’t available for parking this session, as it is under construction. Once the new Senate offices are built, that structure will contain more accessible parking. The tunnel between that space and the capitol will reopen one year from now.

MNSCOD will post regular accessibility updates on its website.  Click on the capitol renovation tab at the top of the home page.

The capitol renovations is taking place in four phases. In September 2013, demolition and other work began in the building’s basement. The second phase began in February with construction of mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure. In June the west wing’s ground and first floors were closed for repairs. The entire east wing was closed at the same time. This work is still underway. In June 2015, the west wing’s second and third floors will be closed for work, along with the entire north wing.

The Department of Administration urges the public to call 651-201-2300 if there are questions. One link, which provides information on the project as well as parking and maps, is here.  Anyone needing to set up public events should go here.