Courthouse site a surprise to business owners

EVERETT — David Jolly’s Rockefeller Avenue law offices still smell new, thanks to a painstaking, top-to-bottom remodel completed last year.

In the building next door, elegant library shelves, wainscotting and swinging doors give attorney Royce Ferguson’s digs an unmistakable old-timey Everett feel.

Both buildings could be demolished in a year or so, following Snohomish County’s decision to build a new nine-story courthouse on an adjacent parking lot it already owns. The project would displace a half-dozen property owners who share the block, including attorneys, a bail bonds business and a legal messenger service.

Reactions to last week’s decision included resignation and anger.

“As a taxpayer I am outraged and as a building owner, I am absolutely devastated,” Jolly wrote Wednesday in an email to County Executive John Lovick. “Frankly, we feel duped and misled.”

In late September, the council had removed the parking lot option from consideration. That’s why it came as a shock to Jolly and some other affected property owners when it was added back in November.

The County Council on Nov. 25 voted 3-2 to build the courthouse there, on Wall Street between Oakes and Rockefeller avenues. The other choice was the plaza in front of the existing 1960s-era courthouse, about a block west on the other side of Wall Street.

At $150 million, the base price for the parking lot option is an estimated $30 million more than constructing a similar building next to the current courthouse. Security, energy-conservation and other features added another $12 million to the total price.

To pay for it, the council approved a property tax increase that will cost an average homeowner about $20 more per year.

Councilman Brian Sullivan supported the parking lot site. He remains comfortable with the decision, even with the consequences for the neighboring business owners.

“In the end, this really was the best decision,” Sullivan said.

The alternative would have erected the new building within about six feet of the old courthouse, while it remained up and running.

“There’s no doubt that it would have made it disruptive for the courts during the construction process,” he said.

In Sullivan’s opinion, temporarily relocating the courts while a new courthouse was built on site would have been too expensive.

The legal businesses aren’t the only parts of the landscape that will have to make room for the new court building.

The 100 spaces in the county parking lot would go away during construction. The new building would have a parking garage.

Additionally, the county will have to rebuild Matthew Parsons Park on the corner of Wall Street and Rockefeller. Built in 1999, the park was named in honor of a child homicide victim who was beaten into a coma at age 12 and died several years later.

“We know this park is important to many people in our community,” said Rebecca Hover, Lovick’s spokeswoman. “We want to respect that as well as continue to honor the memory of Matthew Parsons.”

The demolition and eventual redevelopment of the old courthouse also would force the relocation of the veterans memorial in the courthouse plaza. The courthouse design process will look into options for how to go about that.

Tour the law offices on Rockefeller, and it becomes obvious that the attorneys’ objections to being displaced are more than courtroom theatrics.

Ferguson moved in about 20 years ago and set about overhauling the one-story building to complement its surroundings, including bricks to match the church across the street.

Inside, a law library is filled with heavy tomes, in an age when many colleagues have gone digital. Framed pictures and newspaper articles on the wall provide windows into the region’s past — and some high points in Ferguson’s legal career.

“We didn’t want it to look brand new,” Ferguson said. “We knew we were going to be here a long time.”

Cec Tennessen worked as Ferguson’s secretary even before they relocated here from a downtown office building.

“So much better, here, so much better,” she said.

Tennessen helps people who walk in off the street, trying to navigate the county courthouse a half block away. In spring, she fills the building’s sidewalk planters with flowers.

Ferguson had wanted to stay for a few more years, until retiring. Now he’s resigned to that not happening.

“You’ve heard it before: You can’t fight city hall,” he said.

Janean Jolly manages the office for husband David Jolly. They lease space to six other attorneys.

They bought the building from a printing business last year and gutted it. By the time they were through, they’d spent nearly $500,000. They expected to measure their future there in terms of decades, not months.

“We put a lot of our time, our money and our heart into it,” Janean Jolly said. “Our whole retirement is in this building.”

Also affected are the law offices of Brian M. Sullivan, not to be confused with the county councilman, Brian J. Sullivan.

“This is where I was hoping to get wheeled out in my 80s when I croaked,” said Sullivan, the attorney. “I really just saw myself in here until I died.”

Brian M. Sullivan and the Jollys said they were skeptical about the county’s plans to get rid of the old courthouse, a place with which they’re intimately acquainted.

“I go to the courthouse all the time,” Sullivan said. “I see people in shackles all the time. I’ve never felt unsafe. The staff does a fantastic job.”

David Jolly said the county’s concerns, particularly safety, could have been addressed with a new building on the plaza next to the old courthouse. Tax money for the more expensive site would have been better used to hire police or deputy prosecuting attorneys, he said.

In his email to the county executive, Jolly urged Lovick to veto the council-backed plan. During the budget process, however, Lovick told the council he would support whatever choice they made. He did not endorse one site over the other.

For now, the Jollys are hiring attorneys of their own as they prepare to negotiate with the county over the price of their building.

“We expect that to be a real battle,” David Jolly said.

Sullivan, the councilman, said making sure the property owners get the best possible deal will be a top priority.

Deputy Executive Mark Ericks also promised staff would “figure out a way to make it fair for them.” Moreover, it’s the law, he said.

The county expects to acquire the properties next year. Under the current timeline, most of the construction would take place in 2015 and 2016, with staff able to move in at some point in 2017.

It’s unknown whether the county will demolish the old courthouse right away. The adjacent Mission Building, the courthouse built in 1911, will be preserved.

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

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