EVERETT — As the pair of attorneys strolled by the downtown building that used to house their law practice, a man folded up his bedroll on the doorstep.
Outside the boarded-up building next door on Rockefeller Avenue, another man lay burrowed in a sleeping bag. A group of people standing nearby quarrelled about littering.
“We walk by here all the time. This is kind of the new normal,” attorney Brian Sullivan said.
Sullivan, no relation to the Snohomish County councilman with the same name, used to own the Rockefeller Avenue building with his wife, Melissa, who also is an attorney. It was prime legal real estate, just a half block from the county courthouse, where they do criminal defense work.
Two years ago, the county bought their building and five other nearby properties using eminent domain. County leaders said the acquisition was necessary to make space for a new $162 million, eight-story courthouse, the bulk of which would have occupied what’s now a county-owned parking lot on the same block.
The courthouse project was put on hold within a year, however, and later abandoned altogether over cost concerns and parking.
That leaves the county with $3.6 million worth of real estate in the heart of Everett. For now, it’s mostly going to seed.
“They created a false sense of necessity to get the building from us and now they’ve created blight,” Melissa Sullivan said.
For now, county leaders have no clear plan on what to do with the buildings. The businesses included three law offices, a legal messenger service and a bail bonds company. There also was a private parking lot. Along with the parking spaces formerly used by the businesses, the lot is the only part of the eminent domain property now in use.
Further decisions about the property are on hold until after the County Council decides whether to move forward on a plan to renovate the old courthouse, Deputy County Executive Marcia Isenberg said.
That vote is expected in December. The overhaul would add modern elevators and bathrooms to the courthouse, which was built in 1967. An architect is working to determine what upgrades can be accomplished within the $62 million budget.
County Executive Dave Somers recommended the renovation plan to the council in May. While on the County Council, where he served through last year, Somers originally favored a new building. He changed his mind as his worries grew over county finances.
In the halls of government, opinions are mixed about what to do with the unused buildings on Rockefeller.
“It would be very short-sighted not to hold onto that property, unless we disperse the campus to other parts of the county,” said County Councilman Brian Sullivan, who supported the new courthouse project and has been skeptical of the remodeling plan. “In the meantime, we either need to tear those buildings down or lease them out.”
In other words, do something to maintain the buildings or get rid of them.
Councilman Ken Klein, who was a consistent critic of building a new courthouse, said “If somebody came by and offered us what we paid for it, I think we should jump on it.
“It’s a prime location next to Xfinity Arena,” he said. “It would be great if that were developed into some restaurant complex or something.”
Klein said he’s in no rush, though.
The city of Everett has noted “minor trespass and graffiti issues around the boarded-up buildings on Rockefeller,” city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said. The county has resolved the complaints.
The county-owned buildings aren’t the only vacant properties on the block. The adjacent Hodges building fronting Hewitt Avenue remains unoccupied, after a city condemnation order because it lacks a working elevator. The former low-income apartment building was the site of a 2013 fire that claimed a woman’s life. It’s privately owned. On another corner of the block is the empty lot where the McCrossen Building stood until it was demolished following a fatal fire in 2012.
The city in 2013 hired a consultant to study buying up properties on the block for redevelopment, including a new parking garage. City officials haven’t revisited those plans, Pembroke said.
David Jolly, another attorney whose property was bought by the county, now works out of an office in Bellingham. His work often takes him to Everett, where he considers the decay on his once-gleaming office an “open wound.” He’s still upset with the council members who supported building a new courthouse atop the land where his offices stood.
“None of these individuals have been seriously called to answer to their poor decision,” Jolly said. “I find this very confusing. All three (council members who voted to build the courthouse) have exhibited very poor judgment, judgment that resulted in the county losing millions of dollars and responsible business owners losing their investments.”
Jolly was talking about council members Sullivan, Stephanie Wright and Somers, who served on the council before becoming executive and killing the project.
Brian and Melissa Sullivan bought a new law office a couple of blocks away, on the other side of the county’s administrative buildings.
They’d love to buy back their old building and restore it, if given the chance. That’s despite its current state. There’s a broken back window and the walkway between the next building over smells like a urinal.
“In a heartbeat, I’d put my other building up for sale and pick up here,” Brian Sullivan said.