Home News and Features More Fallout from the Flood: Complex Questions Facing the Capitol Complex

More Fallout from the Flood: Complex Questions Facing the Capitol Complex

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Joe Aja, director for design and construction for the state of Vermont, is the man working on the future of flood-damaged state office buildings in the Capitol Complex. It took workers six days to pump approximately a million gallons of flood water out of this sub-basement at 133 State Street after the July 2023 flood. Photo by John Lazenby.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, July 11 last year, floodwaters that had inundated Montpelier the day before had receded enough for state officials to don boots and galoshes and trudge from building to building, surveying what the flood had wrought in Vermont’s Capitol Complex.

It was mayhem, just as in the commercial area of town, where business owners were beginning to stack mammoth piles of ruined inventory and furniture on the sidewalks.

“There was water everywhere,” recalls Jennifer Fitch, commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS), which oversees and essentially operates the state’s properties. “I never knew that refrigerators floated.”

The government owns or leases space in 24 buildings in Montpelier — not 17, as this writer erroneously reported in a recent Bridge article on teleworking by state employees. Seventeen, though, is the number that Fitch and her staff eventually determined were impacted by the flood. In some cases it was minimal. The Department of Motor Vehicles, probably the Capitol Complex building most utilized by Vermonters, had just three inches of water in the basement, which is stunning considering that it’s situated close to the Winooski River and basically upon the same plain as the downtown, which was wrecked.

There’s a reason for that, explains Joe Aja, the department’s director for design and construction. The DMV’s foundation had been renovated and protected using a technique called dry-flood-proofing; it somewhat enhances the foundation itself, but crucially includes installing sump pumps on the outside of the foundation to pump water away before it can find its way in.

“It allows a little bit of water to get inside,” Aja says, explaining the three inches. “We did the same thing with the heat plant,” a brick building behind the DMV that’s even closer to the river and provides heat to most of the complex. “We had about 10 inches of water in there.”

Even with 10 inches, the heating plant was considered “minimally impacted.” Aja and Deputy Commissioner David DiBiase had to clear wood chips and debris from the interior pumps, but it was an easy fix and the buildings weren’t compromised — a bit of good news, and evidence that we can learn to prepare for future frightening events.

But in many places the damage was worse, with problematic implications for the complex as a whole. Buildings and General Services, along with the state’s Taxpayer Assistance Service and Property Evaluation, resides in an imposing granite building at 133 State Street. It has not only a basement, but also a sub-basement (as do other of the larger buildings). Getting these properties pumped — then mucked out —  (the icky toil of carrying out truckloads of foul debris) required the assistance of two Servpro franchises, which brought in 150 workers from its national network. They camped out behind the Department of Labor building on Green Mountain Drive and spent weeks emptying out these subterranean vortexes, with state employees examining every sodden document to determine if it was expendable.

Rented air conditioning units ready for summer behind 133 State Street with two green generators at right. The state may continue renting these units or consider buying them, a question typical of the kinds of decisions that will have to be made. Photo by John Lazenby.
The mucking was followed up by aerating and dehumidifying.

“The final phase was cleaning and disinfecting,” Commissioner Fitch recalls. “You need to make sure you’re disinfecting everything the floodwaters touched.”

This was where complications set in, because to a significant degree the structures within the Capitol Complex are interconnected. Behind her building at 133 State Street are smaller buildings on Governor Aiken Avenue and Baldwin Street that were almost unscathed in the flood. The trouble is, their electrical systems are linked to the very compromised system at her building.

“Right now,” Fitch acknowledges, “we’re working with the existing electrical systems. But anything that was electrical and came in contact with floodwaters will need to be replaced permanently at some point.”

That will mean wholesale electrical renovations at some of the largest state buildings, with a residual impact on smaller, connected structures. And it’s just one example of how, 10 months after the flood, its impact on the Capitol Complex has yet to be fully determined. As Fitch, Aja, and their associates contemplate the options, a reimagining of the complex is inevitable.

Seen more positively, though, it presents opportunities. How can the state best utilize these resources for a workforce that, in 2024, works differently from the workforce of previous decades? Which buildings might be reconfigured or discarded? Where will staff be redeployed, perhaps combined, and how much workspace will actually be needed?

And can this reshuffling benefit the taxpayers of Vermont and the residents of Montpelier and nearby towns, with their troublesome housing crises?

The Old Days

The Capitol Complex has always been in flux. It has mostly occupied the same part of town — the long, less-densely developed stretch of State Street between Taylor Street and Bailey Avenue, with a shorter, parallel track on Baldwin Street. In 2004 the Vermont Historical Society published a study authored by Christopher Aladdin Bellamy, titled “The Capitol Complex: Change, Loss and Renewal.” Bellamy documented 37 addresses — not 24 — at the time of his report.

The Statehouse was completed in 1859, and, conceptually, would house all of state government beneath its dome. The Supreme Court Building (1918) represented an expansion of the government footprint. Another building purposely constructed for state government is the Pavilion Office Building (1971). Its distinctive design, with tiers of wraparound porches, derived from the hotel that preceded it at that site and was built to serve stagecoach travelers.

From Bellamy’s history, it appears as though  as the Capitol Complex expanded, it followed the National Life Insurance Company around. Bellamy mentions several addresses that once were linked to National Life and later came under the state’s purview. The first one was the building across from the Pavilion, at 110 State Street; that was National Life’s birthplace, where, from the 1870s to the 1890s, it did business out of rented space on the second floor. The company’s final location, before quitting the downtown, was the very building — that granite behemoth — where Fitch, Aja, and their BGS team reside today.

Other parts of the complex hint at humbler, more personal stories, such as the houses along Baldwin Street that, ages ago were homes for business leaders, attorneys, and physicians. Many of these buildings entered the state’s portfolio in the 1970s, apparently a time of expansion.

Then there’s 136 State Street, which, until the flood, housed the Vermont Arts Council. Nearly a century ago, Howard and Alba Leahy launched their printing operation — the Leahy Press — there, and it’s where they raised their three children, including Patrick, who represented Vermont in the U.S. Senate for 48 years.

 Newer Priorities

And so the Capitol Complex has shape-shifted over the years, and Commissioner Fitch anticipates it will  again. Actually, 110 State Street (National Life’s incubator some 150 years ago) had already been on the block before the floods came.

“It’s an example of a building that no longer meets our criteria,” Fitch explains. “Fairly chopped up inside, so smaller spaces, and hard to optimize desk layout.”

Furthermore, it’s been underutilized. Fitch reached out to the city of Montpelier to see if they were interested in the building or knew of others who might be — there’s a housing shortage, after all.

But her efforts went nowhere. And then came the flood.

“Now we have to retain that property until we can make repairs,” says Fitch.

Steam pipes and electrical equipment in the sub-basement of 133 State Street. Photo by John Lazenby.
The buildings up on Baldwin Street escaped flooding, but as the state reevaluates what it wants from its workspaces, those structures seem questionable as well.

“They’re older, they’re smaller, they cost more to heat, and they’re less efficient from a space-optimization standpoint because they’re broken up into rooms. They’re houses, after all,” says Fitch. “So it’s an opportunity to sell some real estate that supports the needs of Montpelier while very strategically reducing the square footage of office space we have in our portfolio.”

On the other hand, she continues, “It costs money to consolidate and optimize space. It also costs money if we have to regain space sometime in the future.” 

“So we want to be methodical in the decisions we’re making.”

Complicated Compromises

In many ways, the Capitol Complex seems to be up and running again. People show up for work, citizens come to take advantage of state services. However, four modest structures at the far end of State Street remain unoccupied. One of them is the Leahy family’s former home.

The issues BGS faces with these properties illustrate the complexities that Fitch and her coworkers — indeed, state government as an entity — confront as they attempt to reconfigure their Montpelier footprint.

Put it this way: there are a lot of interested parties. One of them is the Division of Historic Preservation.

“These buildings at the end of State Street all had water on the first floor,” says Fitch. “Of the four, three are considered ‘historically contributing’ to the district — meaning that they’re old.”

The only way to reconstruct the ruined floors and walls so they retain their historical appearance — and thereby satisfy the Division of Historic Preservation — is with materials like plaster that replicate the original design.

A countervailing interest, though, is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“What FEMA says,” Fitch continues, “is if you do anything that looks permanent [the plaster, for instance] and you haven’t gotten official FEMA approval, you can jeopardize your FEMA funding.”

So the buildings remain in limbo, their histories silenced, their future unresolved. Indeed, FEMA and Historic Preservation, with nearly opposite missions, both weigh heavily in matters throughout the Capitol Complex. Fitch never utters a word of impatience, lauding them both as allies in the state’s recovery.

Then there’s FARC — the Flood Hazard Area and River Corridor Protection rules implemented by Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. It mandates that when owners of buildings within floodplains replace mechanical equipment, such as electrical, hot water, and heating systems, they must elevate them to at least two feet above the base flood elevation.

“That,” Fitch acknowledges, “is going to be our guiding document as we move through the planning process.”

But the implications have yet to be determined: move the essential equipment in each building to some upstairs location? Combine equipment to serve multiple buildings in a new, elevated structure somewhere among them? “You’ve got to think about that individually, but then you have to think about it collectively,” says Fitch.

And to cap it off, there’s the Capitol Complex Commission, a five-member board with regulatory powers whose mission is to ensure harmony between the state’s holdings and the aesthetic character and practical interests of Montpelier itself.

Fitch, matter-of-factly, summarizes the situation. “You’ve got all these different, competing priorities that you’re trying to bring into the planning process. At the end of the day, typically, the outcome is some degree of compromise among all the stakeholders.”

But even that’s not the end of the story. When that barely conceivable consensus has been achieved, it will fall to the administration and the Legislature to evaluate it, probably to modify it, and finally to fund it.

Fitch hopes they’ll see it like she does — that “ultimately the overall goal is to make these buildings more resilient to future flooding events.”

With the myriad unknowns and unknowables, that may be the only certainty that lies ahead: There will be more flooding.

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