Lawmakers are weighing a decision about the future of Docking State Office Building. Here's what to know.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Morning light illuminates the Robert B. Docking State Office Building, 915 S.W. Harrison St, as state employees walk around the block. Lawmakers are weighing their options on the long-awaited renovation of the downtown building, with an option to shrink the height on the table.

Lawmakers are weighing their options on the long-awaited renovation of the Docking State Office Building downtown, with many leaning towards a shorter, six-floor facility using some — but not all — of the current floorplan.

Earlier this year, legislators finally approved $120 million in bond sales be used to fund an overhaul of the Docking building, which has been an object of consternation in the wake of failed efforts to demolish the 62-year-old complex.

Now, the question becomes what the project will look like.

Current proposals would involve either a renovation of the entire building or a separate plan to reduce its size to three floors, with three brand new floors added on top of the structure.

The second plan would be about $15 million cheaper overall, although it would limit the amount of space available and is estimated to be completed in 2025, a year later than merely renovating the existing structure.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing in the minds of many lawmakers, however, as a smaller building would also likely cost less to heat and cool.

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"The feel I get is we need to reduce the size of the Docking building — it is more cost efficient ... That is my recommendation," said Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, whose district includes the capitol complex.

Department of Administration Secretary DeAngela Burns-Wallace presented the options to a committee charged with making a final recommendation to a panel of top lawmakers.

She noted the shorter building would include more event and training space, something that could be a major improvement for state agencies. There are few options for large gathering spaces in state buildings downtown, including the Statehouse, something which became noticeable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I see this as an operational need across state agencies as well," Burns-Wallace said. "Making us more effective and efficient in the capitol complex to deliver the things we need as well."

Legislators are on the clock, however.

Burns-Wallace said as much as half of the renovation costs could be covered by federal COVID-19 aid, although she cautioned many parts of the building project wouldn't be considered an allowable expense for the dollars.

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Still, the flexibility to save state money was an attractive one for lawmakers.

"We've kicked this can down the road," said Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan. "And I suspect with the world we live in no one is going to get the perfect building they want. I think it would be a huge mistake for us not to get a decision where we can at least use (federal) money to do part of the cost."

It comes with a catch, however. The state has to plan how to use the funds by 2024 and the monies have to be spent by 2026. Both project plans would fit into that window, although delays could affect that timeline.

The Docking State Office Building, 915 S.W. Harrison St., is seen from a helicopter on Feb. 27, 2020.

Officials also want to use federal funding to relocate the Kansas Department of Health and Environment laboratory, which currently sits at Forbes Field airport. The agency has said it has outgrown the space and received legislative approval to consider other options.

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But those that got the seal of approval from KDHE staff would involve moving to one of two sites owned by the state. One option would be on parking lots adjacent to the Statehouse complex, while the other would be on the grounds of the Kansas Neurological Institute.

While the possibility of purchasing or leasing land is also an option, it is considered less attractive because of its additional costs and the delays it would add into the project.

The Joint Committee on State Building Construction is expected to make recommendations on the Docking and KDHE proposals next month. Rep. Marty Long, R-Ulysses, who chairs the committee, said that wouldn't be a second too soon.

"We're running out of time," he said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at or by phone at 443-979-6100.