Kansas lawmakers weigh options for Docking renovation, new KDHE lab

By: - September 7, 2021 7:45 pm

The Joint Committee on State Building Construction, chaired by Rep. Marty Long, considers proposals for a renovation of the Docking State Office Building and a new KDHE laboratory. Their recommendation will be passed along to the State Finance Council for final approval. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators Tuesday considered two proposals for what to do with the long-neglected Docking State Office Building.

Years of neglect and a desire by former Gov. Sam Brownback to demolish the 62-year-old complex adjacent to the Statehouse resulted in health hazards and deteriorating insides. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved up to $120 million in bonds to renovate the mostly vacant building.

The first option presented to legislators on the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, led by Rep. Marty Long, R-Ulysses, would be to renovate the entire 14-story building building, which would take until 2024 and cost about $127 million. The second option would reduce the size to three floors and then add three new floors on top of the structure.

The second option would be about $15 million cheaper overall and offer potential cost savings on building maintenance and utilities. However, it would limit available space and would be completed in 2025.

“I’ve had a lot of visits with business owners, the Chamber of Commerce, the City of Topeka, around this whole development and the feeling I get is that we need to reduce the size of the Docking building,” said Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, whose district includes the building site. “It’s more cost efficient. We’ll be able to market it and be able to fill it.”

Many lawmakers on the committee indicated an initial preference toward the smaller building, although some were concerned about historical preservation or space for larger agencies. Tied into this decision is a debate about potential sites for a new, separate Kansas Department of Health and Environment lab.

Administration secretary DeAngela Burns-Wallace says significant funding for the Docking renovation project could come through American Rescue Plan Act funds, although some parts of the plan would not be allowable expenses. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Department of Administration secretary DeAngela Burns-Wallace noted the smaller building would include additional event and training space in the three new floors, which could prove beneficial for state agencies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of available space for committee hearings with many people wishing to testify or other large gatherings became increasingly apparent.

“Having a larger, dynamic meeting and training space in this Capitol Complex is critical to our operational need,” Burns-Wallace said. “I have an agency that has close to 500 employees. There’s no place for me to bring more than a third of my agency together without being outside right now.”

Burns-Wallace said up to 50% of the renovation costs could be covered by federal pandemic aid, but some parts of the project may not be allowable expenses. The state must plan how to use these federal funds by 2024 and spend the money by 2026.

Both options fit that timeline, but delays could throw a wrench into that plan. Still, legislators were interested in using these funds for the Docking building and the relocation of the KDHE laboratory from Forbes Field airport grounds south of Topeka.

Legislators also set aside $55 million in bonds for the lab in the budget earlier this year, which Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration had hoped would be housed within the Docking building.

The options that received approval from KDHE would involve either moving the lab to a parking lot adjacent to the state Capitol complex or the Kansas Neurological Institute grounds in southwest Topeka. Purchasing or leasing land is also an option but would incur additional costs and delays.

The committee is expected to make a recommendation to the State Finance Council on both the Docking and KDHE proposals at a meeting next month.

“In regard to the Docking building, it seems to be intertwined somewhat with the decision we make on the KDHE lab also,” Long said. “The State Finance Council will make a decision on both at the same time, and I think there’s a lot of things up in the air with both working together and (American Rescue Plan Act) money. There’s a lot of unknown.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.