Critics slam Christie over $300M plan to renovate unsafe Statehouse
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie is leaving the Statehouse early, though not his political office.
Christie – who made clear he’s remaining governor until January 2018 – on Tuesday announced a $300 million plan to renovate the exterior and interior of the executive wing of the Statehouse, the first major work on that portion of the state capitol in almost 60 years.
That demolition and reconstruction will close a portion of the Statehouse, including the Governor’s Office, for about four years, starting next July. Offices wouldn’t be reopened until mid-2021.
“The building in short is subject to catastrophic failure in many different places,” Christie said.
“To leave the Statehouse in this condition is an embarrassment to the people of this state. It impacts the health and safety of the people who work here and visit here and have business here. And quite frankly, it’s shameful,” he said.
The Statehouse’s executive wing lacks sprinklers and fire suppression equipment. Christie said it has countless code and Americans with Disabilities Act violations, as well as combustible materials in the attic and throughout the building.
“This building is a trap, on the executive side,” Christie said.
“Windows are literally falling out of this building and need to be strapped into the window frames to avoid them from falling out and hitting vehicles, people below,” he said.
“We have structural safety concerns,” Christie said. “We’ve been told that the office of the counsel to the governor, next to my office, is sinking into the ground and is in danger in the next two years of collapsing into the ground and crushing everything that’s beneath it. What’s beneath it? All of the computer servers that serve this building and the executive branch of the government.”
More than one-third of the Statehouse’s executive wing lacks heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Around one-fourth of the money the state spends on energy in that portion of the Statehouse is wasted.
“We will make sure that the entire building is once again a place that we can have people be proud to come and visit and proud to be a symbol of the government of our state,” Christie said.
Christie said the work will be funded in cooperation with the Economic Development Authority but didn’t detail if the funding would be borrowed or how it would otherwise be funded.
The project was quickly panned by groups with an interest in spending on other priorities.
“His announcement to spend over $300 million on an ‘Extreme Makeover’ of the Statehouse rather than allocate any funds to the state’s tobacco control program, shows where his priorities are,” said Bill Sherman, vice president of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
“When I think of the urgent infrastructure needs across the state, the Trenton offices of Gov. Christie and other political leaders aren’t high on the list. A Trenton makeover can’t hide the fact that there is an urgent, statewide need for drinking water infrastructure,” said Jim Walsh, the Mid-Atlantic region director for Food & Water Watch.
Christie said it’s not about him – and that the project, like the gas tax increase he signed into law last month, are the types of things only a second-term governor can get done.
“First-term governors are always worried about how things will be perceived and looking like I’m making my own office nicer. Well I’ll never work here in these conditions that we’ll renovate this to. That will be for the next governor to enjoy and his or her staff to enjoy,” he said. “But these are the kind of things that second-term governors can and should do so that there’s no misperception in the public that this is something that’s for me.”
New Jersey has the nation’s second-oldest continually operating Statehouse, after Maryland. It was constructed in 1792 and has gone through an additional 17 projects since then, but none since 1958 outside of small-scale fixes – which are costing the state around $3 million this year.
“This building is a treasure. It’s a jewel. It’s a gift that’s been passed down literally to us from our Founding Fathers,” Christie said.
“You will see everything from the front of this building the way it looks now, the entrance the way it looks now, with what I’ve always called like Home Depot aluminum at the front of this building, to be restored back to the way it looked in the late 1800s, which was a really spectacular looking entrance,” Christie said.
Other portions of the Statehouse complex have gone through more recent renovations.
The legislative wing was renovated around 25 years ago, though some exterior repairs will be done there in the new project. The project will also include the renovations of an office building across West State Street from the Statehouse, which will include space for the State Police security efforts.
Christie said the State Police security screenings now done inside the entrance to the building will be relocated to separate space outside.
“Anyone who understands homeland security as I do knows that you don’t screen people for explosive and weapons inside the building where you’re in fact concerned that they may use those explosives or weapons,” Christie said.
Christie indicated the renovations will include the addition of exhibit and museum space, possibly in the Rotunda itself, to enhance the experience for visitors, particularly the fourth-graders who visit each year as part of their New Jersey-focused social-studies curriculum.