The elevators go up and down all 15 levels in a jiffy. There’s light and windows everywhere. The committee rooms can seat hundreds. The upsized cafeteria has ample seating and a pizza oven. And there’s new technology throughout designed to help the people of Virginia see and influence what their elected representatives are doing in Richmond.
The ribbon won’t officially be cut on the new Virginia General Assembly Building until next Wednesday, but the state officials who have overseen the nearly $300 million project for the last six years are proudly preparing to reveal the almost-finished product.
“I feel like saying ‘Hallelujah!’” Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said Thursday as she took questions from reporters getting their first look at the new legislative office building that’s been under construction on Capitol Square.
The new building, which replaces an asbestos-laden predecessor that was built in 1976 and demolished a few years ago, will house the offices of members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, as well as spacious new committee rooms where much of the nitty-gritty work of writing laws takes place.
A tunnel connecting the new building to the historic state Capitol is still under construction but is expected to be complete by the end of the year. The tunnel will be open to everyone, which means the visiting public will be able to move freely between the two buildings without having to go through multiple security screenings.
The new building incorporates several design elements meant to evoke the Capitol interior, including its ornate staircase on the lower levels and dogwood-themed carpeting in a Senate committee room similar to a pattern in the old Senate chamber.
“The Capitol is the jewel. This is a beautiful bauble,” said House Clerk G. Paul Nardo. “We’re trying to make them more seamless.”
During the construction process, the legislature temporarily moved into the labyrinthine and stuffy Pocahontas Building, where visitors often got lost and meeting rooms were regularly filled to capacity. The Pocahontas Building is scheduled to be torn down after the General Assembly officially moves to its new offices for the 2024 legislative session.
It won’t be missed by the clerks, who manage the General Assembly’s day-to-day logistics and said the new building has been designed with public accessibility in mind from top to bottom. Visiting tour groups will now have more space to gather and eat lunch, and most committee and subcommittee meetings will happen on the first few floors instead of requiring guests to venture high into the upper levels. Observers will no longer have to pop in and out of meeting rooms to keep tabs on what’s going on: Screens in the hall will stream the action and show what bills are being discussed.
Not only are the view-blocking columns from the old committee rooms gone, but the meeting spaces are equipped with upgraded streaming technology to make it easier for people around the state to watch and participate without having to travel to Richmond.
“This is going to be more beneficial to people who are interested in the process, who have concerns to bring before the legislature,” said Schaar. “It’s going to be a better functioning building overall. And I think that’s important to taxpayers.”
The building came in above budget and behind schedule, a complication officials have attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain backlogs. A legislative committee overseeing the project in conjunction with the clerks and the state Department of General Services also cut two floors off the building as a cost-saving measure.
Despite the delay, the clerks feel the final product, which has an expected lifespan of 100 years, will be worth the wait.
“I hope once the public comes in and we burn in and use it the first time, that everything we say comes to fruition,” said Nardo. “But I think it’s going to be light-years ahead of what we had.”
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