Court­house closer to ren­o­va­tion

The County Coun­cil voted to ex­plore re­mod­el­ing the 50-year-old struc­ture in­stead of build­ing a new one.

The Daily Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Haglund Her­ald Writer

EVERETT — Sno­homish County lead­ers on Wed­nes­day agreed to look into over­haul­ing the county’s al­most uni­ver­sally unloved court­house, though judges and some oth­ers aren’t con­vinced that the nearly 50-year-old struc­ture is worth the ef­fort.

The County Coun­cil voted 3-2 to ex­plore more de­tailed ren­o­va­tion plans. In do­ing so, they stepped in line with County Ex­ec­u­tive Dave Somers’ rec­om­men­da­tion to aban­don a new con­struc­tion project that would have cost more than twice as much. Patch­ing up the charm­less down­town ed­i­fice, they said, is the only op­tion, given the county’s strained bud­get.

“This is a good step to­ward pro­duc­ing a safe, se­cure and fis­cally re­spon­si­ble build­ing,” Coun­cil­man Hans Dun­shee said.

Un­der the plan, the county would spend up to $63 mil­lion to fix up the con­crete-pan­eled jus­tice build­ing on Wall Street. That com­pares to the $162 mil­lion the county un­til last year had ex­pected to spend on a new eight-story build­ing across the street and a block east. Con­cerns about the county’s fi­nances and pro­vid­ing park­ing in down­town Everett sunk those plans last sum­mer as crews were pre­par­ing to break ground.

The ren­o­va­tion bud­get is what re­mains from the $75 mil­lion in bonds the county sold for

court­house con­struc­tion mi­nus the ap­prox­i­mately $12.4 mil­lion spent so far on prop­erty ac­qui­si­tion, ar­chi­tec­tural plans and le­gal fees for a new build­ing.

Judges have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion over the sud­den shifts in plans. Se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions about the court­house have been on­go­ing for about a decade.

Su­pe­rior Court Judge Michael Downes said his trust has been badly shaken by the ex­ec­u­tive and coun­cil de­ci­sions.

“You should know the court ques­tions the wis­dom of spend­ing this kind of money to re­model a build­ing that will still need to be re­placed and still presents sig­nif­i­cant safety haz­ards on a daily ba­sis,” Downes said.

The ren­o­va­tion would ap­pear to do lit­tle to rem­edy one of the court’s big­gest con­cerns: the in­abil­ity, given the court build­ing’s lay­out, to sep­a­rate in-cus­tody de­fen­dants from court staff and peo­ple at­tend­ing hear­ings.

Somers in May made his rec­om­men­da­tion to re­model the old build­ing. He has said his de­ci­sion was based mostly on fi­nan­cial con­cerns, which ruled out even a more mod­est new struc­ture. Cur­rent pro­jec­tions sug­gest a short­fall of $6 mil­lion in next year’s op­er­at­ing bud­get.

“Our bud­get sit­u­a­tion made it clear that even the lower-cost new court­house project was go­ing to cause us very se­ri­ous fi­nan­cial prob­lems and was go­ing to re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant cuts through­out the county, even deeper than the ones we’re look­ing at cur­rently,” he said.

Coun­cilmem­bers Brian Sul­li­van and Stephanie Wright voted against the re­mod­el­ing pro­posal Wed­nes­day. Sul­li­van said he was dis­ap­pointed that Somers made his rec­om­men­da­tion in­de­pen­dently of a stake­hold­ers com­mit­tee that was sup­posed to pro­vide di­rec­tion on what to do about the court­house.

“Frankly, it doesn’t meet the stan­dard so it seems pre­ma­ture to move for­ward,” he said.

Sul­li­van, like Downes, also ques­tioned whether the old build­ing is worth the in­vest­ment.

A top pri­or­ity for the ren­o­va­tion is re­in­forc­ing the 1967 jus­tice build­ing to make it bet­ter able to with­stand earth­quakes, Deputy County Ex­ec­u­tive Mar­cia Isen­berg said. Other goals in­clude re­plac­ing ob­so­lete el­e­va­tors that break down reg­u­larly and pro­vid­ing bath­rooms that phys­i­cally dis­abled pa­trons can use on each of the build­ing’s five floors. As is, the court­house’s only wheel­chair- ac­ces­si­ble bath­rooms are on the fifth floor of the main court­house and in the ad­ja­cent Mis­sion Build­ing.

As­bestos build­ing ma­te­ri­als would re­main in place ex­cept where ex­posed dur­ing the ren­o­va­tion process, Isen­berg said.

Var­i­ous plans to ren­o­vate or re­place the court­house have been floated since 2008. That year, a pro­posal would have put the ques­tion to tax­pay­ers, but was ve­toed by then-County Ex­ec­u­tive Aaron Rear­don.

In 2012, coun­cil mem­bers com­mit­ted to re­mod­el­ing the build­ing. Early the fol­low­ing year, how­ever, they de­cided in­stead to look at build­ing a new struc­ture af­ter be­ing told — in­cor­rectly — that it wouldn’t cost much more than a re­model, which wouldn’t have fixed many of the old build­ing’s prob­lems any­way.

Af­ter John Lovick took over as ex­ec­u­tive in mid2013, his staff de­ter­mined that the ear­lier cost es­ti­mates for a new build­ing were too low. A ma­jor­ity of the coun­cil then chose the most ex­pen­sive op­tion on the ta­ble, an eight-story build­ing built mostly on the site of a county park­ing lot on Wall Street be­tween Rock­e­feller and Oakes av­enues.

Somers beat Lovick for the ex­ec­u­tive’s job last fall and com­mit­ted to re­view­ing the court­house project, which by that point had been put on hold.

The county will con­tinue to col­lect about $5.5 mil­lion per year in prop­erty taxes that were raised for the stated pur­pose of im­prov­ing the court­house.

County of­fi­cials in­tend to con­tinue work­ing with At­lanta-based ar­chi­tec­ture firm Heery In­ter­na­tional, which has ex­pe­ri­ence on court­houses and other gov­ern­ment build­ings. Ar­chi­tects ex­pect to have more de­tailed ren­o­va­tion plans ready by Novem­ber. The coun­cil must ap­prove those plans be­fore work be­gins.

Even with­out a full­blown ren­o­va­tion, the county still would need to fix the roof and re­place win­dows, along with other reg­u­lar main­te­nance.

There are no plans for what to do with $3.6 mil­lion worth of pri­vate prop­erty the county ac­quired through con­dem­na­tion for the new court­house project. Those prop­er­ties used to house three law of­fices, a bail bonds busi­ness, a le­gal mes­sen­ger ser­vice and a small park­ing lot.

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