Legislators push smaller Docking State Office Building renovation centered on events space in Topeka
Over the decade-plus of debate over what should be done with the Docking State Office Building, there have been more opinions over the facility's fate than there are rooms in the 14-story behemoth.
That was on full display Monday, as a legislative committee recommended a three-story facility primarily composed of events space, overruling a slightly taller version of the building with more offices.
That proposal was favored by the Department of Administration, Democratic lawmakers and many in the Topeka government and business community.
Earlier this year, legislators finally approved $120 million in bond sales to power a revamp of Docking, with the 60-year-old building largely mothballed in recent years. The aging structure's basement contains the heating and cooling plant used to power the capitol complex, but most of the state agencies previously housed in the building moved elsewhere.
The question then became what the new office building should look like.
Plans from an outside contractor proposed by the Department of Administration would have involved either a renovation of the entire building or a separate plan to reduce its size to three floors, with three new floors then added on top of the structure.
But the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, a panel of legislators who handle state facility development, recommended a three-story option, although the exact format will be left up to the State Finance Council, the top panel of state officials who have a final say on the matter.
Event space key for lawmakers in new Docking facility
Much like the chaos of the Docking debate, the vote wasn't smooth. First lawmakers clashed over whether committee members could vote virtually. Then, there was confusion over whether five or six votes were necessary to approve the recommendations, with an absent senator fetched from his farm to join the meeting virtually and provide the key sixth vote.
When the dust settled, Sen. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said the move was an effort to ensure lawmakers had flexibility as they settle on a final proposal, which could include renovating the existing first three floors or building a totally new facility.
Officials could also consider building a new heating and cooling center, a move considered by Gov. Sam Brownback but halted by the state Legislature in 2016.
Members of both parties, as well as the Department of Administration, have all agreed on prioritizing event space, with officials quick to point to a lack of meeting and banquet facilities in the capitol complex currently.
The new proposal would also pave the way for the Kansas State Museum or other entities to have displays in the building, something which that prove attractive for tourists or school groups.
"What we know is we need meeting space, we need venue space, we need a place for schoolchildren to come for some sort of presentation," Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, said. "My husband and I have visited over 25 state capitols and most of them have some sort of museum near the state capitol. I love the idea of rotating exhibits, so this becomes a center for people."
But the current plan would likely minimize office space, something Claeys said would fit in with a push toward remote work, particularly as state employees have worked from home during much of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Growing our office space is an unnecessary addition to the state portfolio at this time," he said. "The future is not more office space, it is less."
Democrats skeptical of new plan, as others push for leaving structure in place
All Democrats on the committee, however, voted against the proposal, arguing it was too broad. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, even said the building should be added to the National Register of Historic Places in pushing for her colleagues to consider a full renovation of the current building, 12 floors and all.
The Shawnee County Historical Society and other advocates have pushed to maintain parts of the building on historical grounds as well. And other members simply argued a six-story building makes more sense.
"I fail to see how (the three-story plan) helps governmental operations in a day-to-day manner. ... I'm not sure what it does for downtown Topeka to have another events space," said Rep. Jarred Ousley, D-Merriam. "I understand we could use it, but we've functioned as a government for this long without it."
Curtis Sneden, president of the Topeka Chamber, said his group was happy with the move to limit any new office space downtown. Any event space, he added, would likely be tailored for the needs of the state and wouldn't infringe on other, private facilities with a similar mission.
"We don't have any particular concern, if that comes on line, that it will represent a worrisome type of competition with our other venues," Sneden said.
The committee also moved to recommend a new lab for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment be constructed at the Kansas Neurological Institute, a move which engendered only modest pushback due to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also considering the grounds for a new veterans home in eastern Kansas.
There is no timeframe for when the State Finance Council might act, although lawmakers have expressed an interest in using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for parts of the project. That money has to be spent by 2026, although officials say they are not in danger of the timeline for a new building going beyond that date.
As Docking continues to loom, mostly empty, on the Topeka skyline, officials agree some sort of action needs to be taken soon.
"The worst thing we could do is do nothing," Claeys said to his colleagues during the meeting. "Another decade of this eyesore sitting on the Topeka skyline just isn't something I'm willing to accept and I hope you're not either."
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.