County officials decide new court building best option

EVERETT — Remodeling projects always seem to go over budget.

That fear, on a 200,000-square-foot scale, has encouraged Snohomish County to stray from a plan to give its courthouse a thorough makeover.

County leaders now favor getting rid of the 1967 building and starting from scratch.

That would mean putting up a new seven-story structure with 20 courtrooms in the plaza on the courthouse’s north side. When the replacement is ready, demolition crews would knock down the old six-story courthouse next door, sending its pressed-concrete facade, rickety elevators and cranky ventilation systems into oblivion.

The county’s historic Mission Building would survive as office space.

“The reason we’re doing this is because the cost to remodel the existing courthouse is close to the cost of building a new courthouse,” county facilities director Mark Thunberg said. “We could remodel the existing courthouse and we would still have a building that is not as functional as it would need to be.”

If all goes as planned, work would start in early 2014 and finish in March 2016.

Rebuilding the courthouse has been a priority for years. Low borrowing and construction costs are a big reason county leaders want to act soon.

The chief concern for the county is security. The current building creates an uncomfortable mix of people who must use the same hallways, with little ability to keep them separate: criminal defendants, victims, judges, jurors, attorneys, police and the general public, among others.

The building’s inefficiency also causes maintenance costs to pile up. Outdated elevators require custom-built replacement parts, leaky plumbing needs constant attention and a nearly 50-year-old electrical system complicates attempts to deploy 21st century technology.

Last year, the county convened a study group composed of criminal justice and administrative leaders to evaluate the county’s courthouse and look at replacement options.

That effort updated a 2008 courthouse study, which called for a 10-story facility that would have cost $169 million — more than double what’s under discussion now.

In November, a 3-2 County Council majority passed a 2013 budget that set aside money to move the courthouse project forward.

The plan discussed at the time included overhauling the old courthouse and the adjacent Mission Building. It also called for a new three-story building on the courthouse plaza, with the ability to add more stories in the future as needed.

Thunberg, the county facilities director, was part of the group tasked with exploring whether that plan would work. He concluded that the county would be better off building something new.

Thunberg and other county leaders shared a worry common to reality TV home-makeover shows: What would construction crews find once they tore into the old building?

“We don’t really know what we’re getting into with this; it could be a $22 million remodel, it could be a $32 million remodel,” Thunberg told County Council members during a Tuesday meeting.

On top of that, he said retooling the old courthouse could never do away with some security flaws and other problems inherent in the design.

Revamping the old structures would create more disruption to court operations than new construction. That work also would have to progress floor-by-floor. To make it worse, at times, workers would have to shut down the building’s water, sewer and electrical systems.

Building a new structure also would create some disruption, but to a much lesser extent, Thunberg said. It would require blocking off the main courthouse entrance until the new facility opens.

Another drawback of remodeling: It would take up all of the developable land at the county campus. A new, taller building would leave some growing room.

Council members last week found the arguments for new construction persuasive.

“The new proposal avoids the problems of disruption, the financial danger of remodeling, and gives us a new building,” said Councilman Dave Gossett, the architect of a budget plan to pay for courthouse upgrades.

Councilman Brian Sullivan called the new plan “a go for me.” Sullivan, as council chairman last year, worked with Gossett on the funding plan.

The presiding judge for Snohomish County Superior Court, Michael Downes, said the new direction, “would better address our space needs, our operational needs.”

Funding for the new courthouse would come from a property-tax increase.

It would add about 2.8 cents per $1,000 in assessed value to tax bills this year and the same amount again in 2014. That’s about $6.70 more this year for a house with the county’s average assessed value of around $240,000.

Part of the increase is being used to shore up county staffing levels.

The new construction would cost about $74 million. That’s about $9 million more than the $65 million estimate for the earlier proposal. The extra dollars would stretch bond payments over 30 years, instead of 25 under the previous plan.

For the plan to move ahead, the County Council must vote on the bonds later this year and approve a construction bid after that.

The county hopes to select an architect by March, Thunberg said.

The last major face-lift for the county’s downtown Everett campus was in 2005. The nearly $180 million campus redevelopment included a new eight-story administration building, jail and underground parking garage.

The new courthouse building would be designed to house courtrooms for Superior Court and District Court; court administrators; and county clerks. The Sheriff’s Office administration would occupy the second floor of the 1911-vintage Mission Building. Prosecutors would remain on the ground floor.

The courthouse plan also calls for a new Sheriff’s Office south precinct building on the county’s Cathcart property.

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

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