Architects say county courthouse construction on track

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s future courthouse won’t go over budget and construction should keep close to its original two-year schedule, architects assured county leaders Tuesday.

The update, during a council meeting, came less than a month after the county switched the main architect on the project. The change stemmed largely from fear that courthouse construction would exceed a $162 million price tag that already has created sticker shock.

“At its core, we have the makings of a very sound civic building,” said Doug Kleppin, a vice president with Heery International, the firm that took over the design process.

Based in Atlanta, Heery has a long presence in Seattle. The company has helped design more than 70 courthouses.

Much work remains in Snohomish County before they hope to break ground, some time next spring, Kleppin said.

Once construction begins, it’s expected to last about 22 months.

Designs presented Tuesday show a building with nine floors, including the basement. The metal and glass exterior would encompass 250,000 square feet of floor space. That’s more than double the 116,121 square feet in the current courthouse, excluding space in the adjoining Mission building.

Designs for the new structure show a main entrance near the current site of Matthew Parsons Park, a memorial at the corner of Rockefeller Avenue and Wall Street named after a child homicide victim.

The new building’s main floor would be dedicated to customer service desks, including court clerks. The building would house 18 courtrooms and a law library, plus office space for county deputy prosecuting attorneys and court administrators.

There’s no space for the sheriff’s office administration, which would move either to the county’s Robert Drewel Building or the Mission building.

The presiding judge of Snohomish County Superior Court, Michael Downes, said the new courthouse includes only features that are necessary to serve the community well into the future.

“This is for the public,” Downes said. “This is not for the lawyers or the judges.”

The judge reminded people at the meeting Tuesday that it’s not just criminal defendants who need access to the courts. It’s also businesses resolving civil disputes, families who adopt children, couples getting divorced, and more.

Problems with the existing courthouse include a layout that makes it hard to keep the public or court staff safe, asbestos and structural vulnerability during earthquakes.

Some criminal cases have ended in mistrial after juries saw inmates in chains, Downes said.

“The old building is abysmal,” he said. “It just is.”

Councilman Ken Klein has been an outspoken critic of the current plans, which were approved by a council majority before he took office.

Klein wants to revisit an earlier $75 million plan to remodel the old courthouse and add a new wing.

“I agree 100 percent that we need a new courthouse,” Klein said.

The renovation plan, he argued, could save the county $4 million per year — money that could go toward staffing.

The remodeling plan came from a task force the county assembled in 2012. The work evolved into an entirely new building, after council members were told that starting from scratch wouldn’t cost much more than $75 million. Closer study proved that estimate grossly inadequate, and the budget more than doubled.

Council Chairman Dave Somers said the remodeling concept was never realistic. He called the current design, “an efficient, safe building. It’s not a Taj Mahal.”

“I don’t believe there was any real $75 million option before us,” Somers said.

The county has started condemnation proceedings against a half-dozen businesses — mostly law firms and other legal businesses — to make way for the future building. Property owners have been told they need to leave no later than November.

The bulk of the land for the new courthouse is now a county parking lot, on Wall Street between Oakes and Rockefeller avenues. The spot sits across the street and about a block east from the county’s existing 1967 courthouse.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said he’s happy with the direction the council has taken. Like Somers, he has no desire to re-visit the renovation concept.

“It’s really not an option to reverse course at this point in time,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to build a building that’s going to be obsolete and full on day one.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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