County weighing options for new courthouse

EVERETT — Snohomish County leaders now have three locations to ponder when it comes time to build the county’s proposed $75 million courthouse — if that’s in fact how much it ends up costing.

The county put the project on hold last month to give County Executive John Lovick’s administration time to review the plans.

Deputy Executive Mark Ericks returned to the County Council on Monday with new ideas, though he made his general support clear.

“There is no doubt that there is a need for this building,” Ericks said.

Through the extra review, Ericks and his staff hope to help reach the best long-term decisions for a building that could be in use for 50 to 75 years.

The earlier plan was to build the new law and justice center shoulder-to-shoulder with the existing courthouse, on the plaza to the north.

Now, they’ll also look at building on a county-owned parking lot at the corner of Wall Street and Oakes Avenue. That’s across the street from Comcast Arena and cater-corner from the county jail.

A third option is to make room by moving the historic Mission Building that sits south of the existing courthouse. That would put the new structure near the corner of Pacific and Wetmore avenues. The Mission Building would be housed, temporarily, at the parking lot near Comcast Arena. Where the historic building would go and how it would be used is anyone’s guess.

The new choices offer benefits, as well as extra expenses: buying buildings next to the parking lot, in one scenario, or moving the Mission Building, in the other. Both of those options would entail the unknown cost of rerouting an underground security tunnel between the courthouse and the jail.

There also are serious drawbacks to the plaza site.

If the county builds there, a large construction site would take shape eight to 10 feet from the old courthouse. Plans are to keep it up and running until the new structure is ready to use, county facilities director Mark Thunberg said.

The plaza also limits the size of any future courthouse’s ground floor and, as a result, the customer-service facilities the county could put there. The other locations give the county more flexibility.

The size of the building also is open to debate. The courthouse now proposed would likely be full the day it opens, with no room for county deputy prosecutors or some other county staff tied directly to the courts.

The county facilities department also looked into finding temporary space for the court complex and building the new structure where the old one is. That idea was quickly ruled out, Ericks said, after they realized it would cost up to $12 million for the temporary relocation alone.

“In the end, we thought the cost would be prohibitive and wouldn’t be worth considering,” Ericks said.

Even building on the plaza is likely to exceed the $75 million budget, which is being covered through a 30-year bond the county took out earlier this year, he said.

“My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that what you have on the books right now will cost more than the $75 million,” Ericks said.

Council members are interested in building on the parking lot, but worry about the price and the logistics.

“In the best of all possible worlds, the parking lot is the best site,” said County Councilman Dave Gossett, one of the chief proponents of a new courthouse. “It comes down to money, to parking, and can we buy the buildings.”

Councilman John Koster said, “I just want to see the numbers.”

“There are a lot of unknowns.”

An update isn’t likely until next month.

The new building would replace the county’s 1967 courthouse. In February, county leaders opted to build something new, because renovating the old one wouldn’t solve a host of problems, including inherent security flaws.

Until county leaders tapped the brakes, the project was on a timeline to break ground by April 2014 and to open during the first half of 2016.

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

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