Utah lawmakers tucked away $110M to solve a slew of building and parking problems on Capitol Hill and its surroundings

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on the last day of the 2019 Utah legislative session, Thursday March 14, 2019.

Utah’s first state flag, pioneer wedding dresses and other treasures from the state’s past are currently stored in a dank basement surrounded by a network of leaky pipes.

A couple miles away at the state offices on Capitol Hill, the air conditioning and heating systems and bathroom fixtures are closing in on the end of their useful lives. And the parking shortage around the statehouse complex is so acute that visitors are often forced to park their cars a half-mile away or farther and pick their way along the road’s shoulder to get to the building.

But state officials say they think they can solve all of those problems together, and in the past legislative session, they set aside $110 million for a multiyear project to do it.

“We had all these individual requests for buildings ... and we said, ‘Let’s have this bigger conversation,’” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview the final day of the legislative session.

Wilson touched on the project in his speech to open the 2019 session, explaining that the effort could replace aging and inadequate structures while simultaneously creating a more welcoming space for visitors to the Capitol grounds.

The first step will be crafting a long-term plan to address space constraints for the state’s Agriculture Department, Department of Heritage and Arts and agencies based on Capitol Hill.

Allyson Gamble, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board, said her organization and representatives from the executive and legislative branches will work together to develop this strategy. They’re working to set a date for their first meeting on the subject and are authorized by a state spending bill to spend up to $250,000 on the planning effort.

Part of the analysis will look at relocating agencies from the 60-year-old State Office Building — which sits just north of the Capitol — to sites closer to mass transit and more accessible to employees.

“There’re lots of needs from the tenants on Capitol Hill to try to accommodate their growth,” Gamble said.

Moving state employees to a new home would ease the demands on Capitol Hill, so officials could replace the aging office building with a smaller, more energy-efficient structure that could hold state art and history collections.

The Utah Department of Heritage and Arts has been pushing to relocate its arts and artifacts collection, which is now tucked away in the Rio Grande Depot and the Art Haus.

“The collection faces daily threats because of inadequate environmental controls and deteriorated building systems,” stated a recent report by the Utah State Building Board.

Glass tubes created by Philo Farnsworth in his early television developments, pioneer wedding dresses and a framed lock of Brigham Young’s hair are among the artifacts stored in the Rio Grande Depot basement. The department’s spokesman, Josh Loftin, said the collection valued at roughly $100 million is largely off-limits to the public in its current location, although state historians do try to display the precious items in museums across the state.

“We need a facility that’s built specifically for this, for the preservation and storage of all these materials, and that includes high-level climate controls, it includes state-of-the-art shelving ... and it includes space for people to research and catalogue,” he said.

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Utah's first flag sits on a work table in the basement at the Rio Grande Depot, home of the Utah state historical offices, on Feb. 15, 2018. Archivists are concerned about the current storage facility and the potential for serious damage from water to the collection of artifacts and documents it houses.

The department has considered building a facility on the Art Haus property and has also looked at the current location of The Road Home homeless shelter, which is slated for closure later this year.

The building board before the 2019 session recommended a roughly $36 million project for a new artifacts and arts facility and also requested $28 million for a replacement state agriculture building that would have labs, private offices and spaces to interact with the public. The department’s current headquarters “was not designed to recognize this range of needs” and is strained by the agency’s overall growth, according to the report.

Both of these needs will now be studied as part of the overall review of state facilities on Capitol Hill and its surroundings, according to the Legislature’s spending bill. The cramped parking situation around the Capitol complex will also be included.

Surface lots and underground parking provide about 1,100 spaces on Capitol Hill, and the preservation board several months ago approved a plan to build a parking structure that would add 300 spots in place of an upper lot, Gamble has said. The board could, alternatively, consider putting those additional spaces below-ground near the state Office Building.

Gamble said the $110 million allocated this year by the Legislature will only be the first funding installment for the sprawling building project.

It was only about a decade ago that the state wrapped up its massive, $227 million project to restore the Utah Capitol building and shore it up against earthquakes, as well as remodeling committee rooms and adding security enhancements.