When the new General Assembly Building opens to the public next Wednesday after seven years of construction, the modernized facility will change the way Virginians can interact with lawmakers and participate in the democratic process.
Just a short walk from the historic state Capitol, the 14-story building houses office space for 140 lawmakers; almost a dozen meeting rooms for committees, subcommittees and the Department of Legislative Services, which aids legislators in drafting bills; a small post office; and a significant expansion of Meriwether’s Capitol Café that now includes a pizza oven and a coffee bar.
A newly constructed tunnel, which is set to open Dec. 31 and will be open to legislators, staff and visitors, connects the office building with the 235-year-old Capitol.
The building also offers work spaces for journalists, who until recently were confined to a windowless room deep in the underbelly of the Capitol itself.
“Compared to the old GAB, it’s a much smoother, well-thought out design of the building with people running all over the place,” House of Delegates Clerk Paul Nardo told reporters during a media tour Thursday. “The main action will be on the lower level, first, second and third floors. That’s where the business of the General Assembly will be conducted.”
The construction of the new General Assembly Building is part of a $300 million project that also included the restoration of Richmond’s Old City Hall and the construction of a parking garage for state employees.
At a projected cost of about $292 million, the office building is by far the biggest part of the project, which began in 2017 with the demolition of the old General Assembly Building that first opened in 1976. A subcommittee of legislators — three Democrats and three Republicans — was involved in every step of the planning process.
Susan Clarke Schaar, the clerk of the state Senate who has worked at the state Capitol since the mid-1970s, said that while the old building was “a huge step up” for its time, it had simply outlived its usefulness.
“Committee rooms were too small, we didn’t have enough subcommittee rooms, members didn’t have enough space for their staff members, the public areas were all over the building,” Schaar told reporters Thursday. “We knew we needed to do something to give more access to the public, more transparency, and this is going to be more beneficial to people who are interested in the process or have concerns to bring before the legislature. I think that’s important to taxpayers.”
Schaar said that she was particularly proud of the expansion of Meriwether’s Capitol Café.
“We have lots of school groups that come here year-round, there was nowhere for them to eat,” Schaar said. “They had to bring a bag and eat lunch on the bus, or if it’s a pretty day they could eat out in the square. We got complaints about that all the time.”
Of the old building, which was riddled with asbestos, workers preserved only the historic facade that dates back to 1912. “It had character, but it was a building never intended to be used like that, so we said, let’s design a building that works for modernity,” Nardo said.
Under the original plan, the construction of the facility was to be completed by June of last year, but supply-chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic and a failed stair pressurization test in the spring pushed the opening back to this month.
The new building is also equipped with state-of-the-art security systems. Although he didn’t reveal details, Col. John McKee, chief of police at the Division of Capitol Police, said that his department evaluated the security risks and other vulnerabilities to the facility.
“The most important aspect is the safety and protection of not just the citizens, but the visitors to the seat of government,” McKee said.
The technological upgrades to the building will allow Virginians to follow every step of the legislative process from afar, Nardo said.
“We will be livestreaming all the videos of the meetings, members can Zoom in, they can testify remotely,” Nardo added.
“The process is very important because we are doing the public’s business, not just that of the members here doing what they want, and we put a lot of time, effort and thought into making sure that it is a lot easier to watch, come down and participate, however you choose to do that.”