Opinion: Empty building, empty government
It just stands there, all 13 floors, abandoned and alone. Once the hub of Kansas’ administrative activity, the Robert B. Docking State Office Building is empty and orphaned, its previously vibrant departments now slimmed down and parceled out to rented space and other cities.
In the late 1940s, the State Building Commission foresaw the need for a major office building that would house at least 11 agencies and boards. Docking (given its name by Gov. John Carlin’s administration in 1987) was built between 1954 and 1957, at roughly the same time as the Kansas Turnpike, which has aged far more gracefully. In its day, Docking stood as a progressive architectural statement of a forward-looking Kansas, much like the turnpike. When constructed, at a cost of $9 million, the massive office building was an investment in an expectant future, even before Kansas government began to expand dramatically in the 1960s and beyond.
Throughout the 20th century, Docking served its purpose well, requiring occasional updating to its heating and cooling systems and eventually coming to sit atop a large energy/mechanical system that continues to serve eight buildings in the Capitol Complex, including the Statehouse.
Still, buildings do have life expectancies and require substantial modifications, especially in updating communications capacities and energy usage. By the early 2000s, Docking was aging, increasingly inefficient, and a home to unwanted pests. As often happens, making tough, expensive choices about refurbishing an older building led to deferred maintenance, time and again.
In short, by 2010, the state of the Docking building had ceased to exist as a “condition” and had become a “problem.” Enter Gov. Sam Brownback. If Docking was a problem, he had a solution, one that fit tidily with his small-government philosophy.
He would empty out Docking, scattering a host of agencies to various other, privately owned buildings (in and out of Topeka) and eventually imploding the structure that stood for large and centralized government.
The first part of his plan has been implemented, often with expensive, long-term, hard-to-break leases, which likely benefit some of his supporters. But the real rub comes with the second part, the proposed demolition by implosion of Docking.
If the top 12 floors of Docking now stand largely vacant, beneath the building lie the heating and air-conditioning guts of the Capitol Complex. If this valuable system is to be retained, any Docking demolition must proceed in a highly expensive, brick-by-brick removal.
Just as Brownback really didn’t care about governing as he dispersed state agencies from Docking and simultaneously nudged thousands of civil servants out of their jobs, neither did he truly think through the consequences of emptying the building. Rather, Docking became the symbol for his attacks on government, even as his privatized “solutions” — from tax cuts to welfare reform to farmed-out Medicaid — failed, one after another.
So now, Gov. Laura Kelly and the Legislature have difficult, expensive choices on their hands. Renovate Docking and work to break some of the sweetheart deals that the Brownback administration made? Do a partial renovation? Level Docking, while retaining the heating and cooling system that serves core state buildings? Or build a new power facility and implode the current structure. All are expensive and require serious thought.
In its day, Docking was a progressive example of Modernist architecture. Now, despite some wonderful bones and historic significance, it stands as a graphic example of the costs of hollowing out government.
— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.