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Legislative Hall expansion far from a done deal

Charles MegginsonHeadlines, Government

Legislative Hall Expansion


A committee assembled to draft plans for a potential expansion of Delaware’s state capitol building spent much of its Thursday meeting reiterating the tentative nature of its work. 

The committee was established after the General Assembly unanimously voted in 2021 to study and recommend a plan to address Legislative Hall’s technological, security and space needs.

The group appears to have nearly reached a conclusion about its recommendation back to the General Assembly and governor: a $122 million expansion that doubles the size of the existing building.

But at the group’s second-to-last meeting Thursday, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Glasgow, expressed concern about submitting such an expensive and elaborate plan while other facilities in the state have more significant deficiencies.

The proposal includes a four-level, 350-spot parking garage with a private floor and underground tunnel beneath Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard so lawmakers and staff may “limit cross-contact with the general public.” 

A massive new wing would double the size of the current building and include space for offices, a secure courtyard and larger House and Senate chambers.

A reconfiguration of the existing building would allow for a new cafeteria, enhanced security checkpoint, gift shop, bathrooms, offices, storage space and more.

RELATED: Delaware lawmakers eye major state capitol expansion

The plan is far from finalized. 

The committee will make a recommendation to the General Assembly, which will ultimately vote to move forward immediately, return to the drawing board, delay the plan or scrap it altogether. 

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A projection of what the expansion will cost if the General Assembly follows the recommendation as its written.

Townsend said some media coverage of the committee’s work “wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation, I think, of where the group really sort of was, and it was sort of pre-judging things a bit.”

The coverage did open Townsend’s eyes, though, to how the public might feel about expanding the state capitol when there are so many other areas of need throughout the state.

“It also put me in a position to kind of understand how I likely would feel if, in fact, the group recommended certain things with the level of conviction that the media reporting sort of indicated we already have,” Townsend said. 

He said that because the building is only utilized part of the year, he wouldn’t feel comfortable voting for such a costly proposal “until, for example, there is a modern and fully effective and equitable high school in the city of Wilmington.”

“I, for one, would find it very difficult to support recommending this level of investment on a building that is used part of the year,” he said, “and perhaps to avoid certain kinds of discomforts for legislators or even the public when there are ample discomforts for other segments of the Delaware community that have yet to be addressed.”

Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, responded that Delaware could focus on the need for a high school in Wilmington, for example, while also developing a plan for Legislative Hall that will “make things a whole lot safer and more convenient for our constituents.”

“We’ve been part of a process for several months now … StudioJAED has come back with our recommendations and we’ve worked it in an extremely, extremely timely manner,” Dukes said. “Legislative Hall is the showcase of the state — it’s the center of the state.”

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Concept rendering presented to the Legislative Building Commitee by StudioJAED.

Dukes added that while he agrees the current building’s rooms are “way undersized” and additional parking is “desperately needed,” he is concerned about construction costs in the wake of industry-wide inflation.

That should be part of the General Assembly’s consideration after the recommendation is made, he said, but it’s not a reason to slow the work of the committee.

Other committee members emphasized that additional, perhaps less costly, alternatives will be included in the committee’s final report.

In an interview with Delaware LIVE News after the meeting, Townsend clarified that he’s not criticizing the committee’s work or saying the recommendation shouldn’t be made.

He thinks the amount of money being discussed would be better spent addressing other key needs throughout the state.

He gave the Wilmington high school as an example because that would mean students wouldn’t need to be bused out of the city to schools such as Glasgow, Christiana, Newark or A.I. du Pont high schools. 

“If we have the resources to do both, that’s great,” he said. “But if we don’t have the resources to do both, I personally think that kids in the city of Wilmington deserve modern education facilities before we spend so much money to make legislators more comfortable.”

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While Townsend acknowledged that there are times when extra space comes at a premium in Legislative Hall, the building spends at least half the year nearly empty, he said.

“There might be certain kinds of committee meetings where the space feels cramped, but there are other committee meetings where there feels like ample space,” he said. “In any event, the six months of the year when we’re not even in session, there’s no doubt that there’s empty space.”

Ultimately, Townsend believes the recommendation should be sent to the General Assembly for consideration, but thinks there should be a better delineation between needs and wants.

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Concept rendering presented to the Legislative Building Commitee by StudioJAED.

Needs might include increased access for people with disabilities, technological enhancements or rooms for nursing mothers, for example, while things like underground tunnels would fall under the “wants” category. 

“I think we need to be modest with how we ultimately approach this,” Townsend said.

The committee will have one final meeting on Sept. 22 at 9 a.m. to review the final recommendation and decide whether to submit it to the General Assembly.

Legislative Hall expansion feasibility study update

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