We don’t know details of NJ’s $300M Statehouse renovation plan
TRENTON — Documentation of the structural problems in the executive section of the Statehouse are readily available for the asking – and have been for a while.
Gov. Chris Christie described the problems in announcing the renovation plan six months ago. His treasurer did the same before a Senate panel in January, and the consultant designing the work followed suit at a public hearing last month.
Their message has been dire and consistent: The original $38 million repair plan approved by the Legislature five years ago isn’t enough.
“When are you going to stop putting the Band-Aids on? The building is falling apart,” Christie said. “Falling apart.”
But details of why the restoration plan will cost nearly $300 million remain limited – and will until construction begins, Christie said. Treasurer Ford Scudder said that’s in part because of two lawsuits filed against the project, as well as to not tip off would-be bidders seeking construction contracts.
“Clearly the Legislature has been totally left out,” said Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren. “You can walk all around the Statehouse, all over New Jersey. Does anybody have any idea where this $300 million is going? No. I mean, it’s never been explained. There’s been no transparency for the people of New Jersey.”
Doherty is among those who have sued to block the project, in part because the Legislature wasn’t asked to approve the project – as it had been five years ago. Doherty concedes the heating and cooling system, plumbing, windows and electric need upgrades but says nobody has provided details of why the project was expanded and why it will cost so much.
“I think he should have the press and the whole public and explain the whole thing from soup to nuts, what the $300 million is going to be spent on,” Doherty said.
The original $38 million project was put on hold when contractors concluded the building had been neglected to the point the work would have cost an additional $25 million, just to do basic repairs.
Cornices and chimney had deteriorated. The bolts holding in a fire escape were pulled off the building with bare hands. Windows were at risk of falling out. A floor in the chief counsel’s office was sagging; if it collapsed, it would have fallen onto the building holding the building’s technology infrastructure. The building lacks sprinklers, smoke suppression and, in some parts, heating or air conditioning.
“The building, even though it had a series of projects over time, really has not been touched at all for 50 to 60 years in a major way. Little bits and pieces here and there in a very reactive way,” said George Skarmeas, design director for Design Preservation Partnership, at a public meeting last month.
“You’re spending a lot of money on a crisis management basis, replacing a unit here and a unit there, and there is no improvement in the conditions within the building. Not to mention there is zero benefit in terms of energy efficiency,” Skarmeas said. “You’re paying money for an archaic system that is at risk of failing at any time.”
Christie estimates energy costs will be cut by 40 percent when the work is completed.
The executive wing of the Statehouse is now mostly vacated, with Christie’s office having been relocated down the street last Friday in advance of a four-year renovation project. The project is slated to start soon, though not until after a Superior Court judge hears oral arguments June 14.
Part of the irony of the backlash to the Statehouse renovation is that few who work in the building dispute the need for repairs. The concerns have been about the scope of that work, the lack of detail about how nearly $300 million would be spent and the path by which the project was funded.
Christie said he understands critics of the Statehouse renovation aim their anger his way, though he notes that none of the legislative appointees on the Economic Development Authority or State Capitol Joint Management Commission voted against the project.
However, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto’s representative on the JMC voted to abstain and voiced objections.
“She understood that there’s a great need for it because – as a code official, my daytime job, I tell you, it’s sorely needed,” said Prieto, D-Hudson. “The price tag with it were the concerns and the method that was getting to it.”