Ironworkers Colton Chilberg (left) and Niko Fernandez(right) assist as Gerald Howard welds a rail on the fifth floor of the new addition to the Snohomish County Courthouse on Aug. 30 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ironworkers Colton Chilberg (left) and Niko Fernandez(right) assist as Gerald Howard welds a rail on the fifth floor of the new addition to the Snohomish County Courthouse on Aug. 30 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

After fits, starts and stops, a courthouse redo takes shape

Snohomish County broke ground on the project in the summer of 2018 after years of bickering.

EVERETT — The courthouse renovation: It’s really happening.

A new five-story wing rose to its full height this summer. Crews stitched the steel skeleton into the hulking pressed-concrete edifice next door. Soon, this gleaming addition should function as one with the drab building that has served as the Snohomish County Courthouse since 1967.

“It’s moving along quickly, and it looks good,” County Executive Dave Somers said during a recent tour.

Project managers guided Somers and other county administrators up a temporary orange construction elevator in late August. From the top floor, they could look down upon the iconic steeple at First Presbyterian Church on the other side of Wall Street. Robin’s-egg-blue sky shone through unfinished walls.

As weeks have passed, the open-air, exposed-beamed look has been disappearing behind exterior glass panels.

“We’re right now about a year into the construction phase,” said Josh Dugan, special projects director for the executive’s office.

The project broke ground in August 2018. That puts the 32-month undertaking a bit short of the halfway mark.

The new wing, which is phase I, is slated for completion by March. At that point, court employees are expected to move into the new wing so crews can tackle phase II: sprucing up the old digs.

A grand opening for the entire project is planned for March 2021.

Of late, up to 55 construction workers have been toiling there at any given time. Shifts span 18 hours per day.

Workers in hardhats and judges in robes have learned to co-exist.

“We are a construction company — we make a lot of noise,” said project superintendent Trent Dibble, of general contractor Hoffman Construction Co. “But they’ve been very accommodating with letting us do our work.”

Step back for perspective, and it’s incredible that anything is happening at all.

Talk of replacing the courthouse has been aired since at least the early 2000s. Political bickering flared at times.

The old building provided little space for security screening, leading to long lines under the elements. Other problems include chronic elevator break-downs, asbestos and outdated plumbing. The more than 50-year-old building wasn’t up to modern earthquake standards either.

A 2008 ballot proposal would have paid to replace the building, but it was vetoed amid feuding between the Snohomish County Council and the executive at the time. Then the recession hit.

A few years later, county leaders revived the idea of a renovation or a new courthouse. They settled on a major overhaul estimated to cost $75 million, then switched plans to building from scratch after being told — inaccurately — that a new building wouldn’t cost much more.

During former County Executive John Lovick’s tenure, county leaders instead started pursuing a new nine-story justice building at an estimated cost of $162 million. In the summer of 2015, a split county council pulled the plug on that project a week before a scheduled groundbreaking over financial and parking concerns. By that point, the county had spent millions of dollars on the abandoned project.

County Council Chairman Terry Ryan said he’s glad they killed it.

“It would have been a disaster for the county,” Ryan said. “This project isn’t as big as the other one, but it was the right thing to do for the county.”

Somers voted against the nine-story courthouse proposal while on the council. He defeated Lovick in the 2015 election. After Somers took office, he recommended the renovation that’s now taking place. The council has been split on that option as well, and nearly halted it right before last summer’s groundbreaking.

The project, so far, remains within its $76 million budget, the executive’s office has reported. It’s sticking to its schedule, they said, though winter weather did set it back 17 working days.

Hoffman Construction’s Dibble showed off the results to date.

They include a ground-level entryway with a screening area, with an awning outside to shelter people waiting to get through security. A jury assembly room on the second floor will have space for 200 people. Sheriff’s office personnel will move to new offices on the fourth floor.

The addition will house two new elevators. The three old ones will be refurbished, with one reserved for inmates making court appearances.

When it’s all done, there will be 22 courtrooms between the original courthouse and the addition.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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