County courthouse remodel idea floated again
A majority of the County Council wants to stick to the concept they agreed to last year. That would put a nine-story building on a county-owned parking lot, which sits about a block east and across the street from the existing courthouse.
Two new County Council members have questioned whether that's still a good idea. They point to financial uncertainty in the county from the expense of responding to the March 22 Oso mudslide.
They've suggested remodeling the county's 1967 courthouse — a scenario the council earlier pursued, then rejected.
“I wish we could find a better way, that we could meet the future needs of the county at a better cost,” said Councilman Terry Ryan, who took office in January.
The cost of the proposed justice building has more than doubled from an original $75 million estimate in 2013, though that's only part of the story.
Ryan and Councilman Ken Klein, who took office at the same time, are newcomers to a long-running saga.
The existing concrete-facade courthouse faces a slew of problems. To name a few: worries about earthquake readiness, asbestos throughout the building, and difficulties separating the general public or court officials from criminal defendants.
“Could we make it last a little longer? Sure we could,” Deputy County Executive Mark Ericks said. “It's the proverbial ‘throwing good money after bad.'?”
Ericks has overseen the design process for the courthouse project since Executive John Lovick took office a year ago.
The planning efforts began long before that, which is a big part of the problem.
The County Council in 2008 tried to put a levy proposal on the ballot so voters could decide whether to raise taxes to pay for a new courthouse, estimated to cost $163 million. Then-County Executive Aaron Reardon vetoed the effort, and voters never got their say.
It took a few years for the idea to resurface.
In 2012, the county convened a study group to look at replacing the courthouse. Late that year, the County Council raised property taxes to take out $75 million in bonds for a complete remodel, plus a new three-story addition next door.
In early 2013, County Council members jettisoned the remodeling plan, believing they could get an entirely new building for about the same price. At that point, they envisioned a seven-story structure on the courthouse plaza on Wall Street, just feet from the existing courthouse. Another factor in their thinking was that a remodel would not have fixed all of the problems with the old building.
Council members now say that plan would have actually cost $98 million — $20 million more than what they were led to believe.
The project changed direction again when Lovick became county executive, after Reardon resigned in May 2013.
Ericks was assigned to lead a review of the courthouse project, and he gave the council fresh options for where to put the new court building — and more accurate cost estimates.
Instead of using the plaza next to the current courthouse, they opted to build a nine-story building across from Comcast Arena on the northwest corner of Wall Street and Oakes Avenue, where the county now has a parking lot.
In addition to being more expensive, another drawback of the parking-lot site was not being able to use a prisoner-transport tunnel that currently runs about a block to the courthouse from the county jail.
Unless something changes, county leaders are preparing to break ground in February on the nine-story building. The county has contracted with Hoffman Construction Co. of Seattle. An initial timetable has work finishing by fall of 2017.
“I think the plan in front of us is the best one,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “Although it's expensive, the value over the long term is the best.”
Somers said he's firm about keeping within budget.
“I've told Mark Ericks that I will not support another penny for the courthouse,” he said. “They need to meet it or come in below.”
Ericks last week said Lovick's administration will deliver.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said there are reasons to take another look at the cost. The Oso landslide, the ballooning courthouse price and other financial concerns weigh on his mind.
“Some people would say we look foolish if we reverse course,” Roe said. “I almost think we look foolish if we don't.”
The prosecutor has pitched his own version of the courthouse remodel, using only the $75 million in bonds the county is already obligated to use. In Roe's version, there would be a new building at the corner of Pacific and Wetmore avenues, in front of the county's historic Mission Building, where Roe and his criminal deputy prosecutors have their offices.
Roe said he'd gladly put up with uncomfortable office space if it means having more staff to prosecute crimes.
“I don't care about places. I don't care about offices. I care about having the people I need to do the job,” Roe said. “I doubt the public cares about how nice my office is.”
The county is starting the process to buy the land it doesn't already own for the future courthouse. Initial offers have gone out to six property owners, including law offices, a bail bonds business and a legal messenger service.
The county intends to use eminent domain to get the private property if the owners do not agree to sell.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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