Cost overruns, location, parking needs put courthouse on hold

EVERETT — You can forget about construction starting on a new downtown courthouse this year.

As for next year? That’s still an open question.

Snohomish County leaders might explore a smaller project to erase concerns about overspending the $162 million budget. They’re also entertaining courthouse locations outside of Everett. And city leaders might soon give the county more breathing room by softening their line on parking demands that once had thrown the project in doubt.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get back to where we were in 2014,” County Councilman Brian Sullivan said.

County leaders at times have appeared on the verge of giving up. The path forward — if any — remains unclear.

The County Council in early August postponed votes that would have started construction within weeks. Weighing on their mind were concerns about the overall state of county finances, how rising interest rates would affect bonds they had yet to take out for the project and the lack of a parking agreement with Everett that the county needs as a condition of building permits.

The county has spent about $12 million so far. If the project is scrapped, the county might be able to get back some of those costs through moves such as selling condemned properties. Much of the investment would be lost, though.

County Council Chairman Dave Somers has called for alternatives that could cost significantly less than the building proposed on the north side of Wall Street, between Rockefeller and Oakes avenues. County council members, including Somers, chose that site in November 2013 over other options estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars less.

Somers has been critical of how County Executive John Lovick’s administration has handled the courthouse project since inheriting flawed plans more than two years ago. Somers is running against Lovick for the executive’s job in this fall’s election.

The indecision over the project has caused the county to lose out on bids for demolition and used office furniture for the future building. The county also had to postpone reserving a construction crane.

Even if a version of the courthouse project were to get the green-light later this year, there could be an eight-month wait for a crane, said Jeff Hencz, a special projects manager in the county’s facilities department. Cranes are hard to come by in the hot construction market, with projects in downtown Seattle, Bellevue and elsewhere competing for their use. That probably means no ground-breaking until the summer of 2016 — but that’s just a guess.

“You don’t want to dig a hole and wait four months for a tower crane to show up,” Hencz said.

Sullivan and Lovick insist that the project remained on time and on budget until Everett city leaders imposed emergency parking regulations last year. In a letter sent to Lovick and County Council members last week, Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson objected to the notion that the city was responsible for delays.

Everett officials earlier this year had been looking into an agreement that would have committed the county to leasing 300 parking spaces at a new parking garage, which the city or another party would have to build near the new courthouse. That would have cost about $5.5 million over 20 years and eaten into the into the courthouse construction budget.

The City Council abruptly put that agreement on hold in late July. City Council members demanded more information from the mayor’s office and county officials before acting.

The parking proposal has evolved since then.

City officials now are considering a deal that involves no lease and no requirement for a new parking structure. The county instead would have to remove more than 100 fleet vehicles that it now keeps in its parking garage on Oakes Avenue, a block south of the proposed courthouse site. The city also would require the county to discourage its employees from using on-street parking downtown.

The city’s current stance hews more closely to the county’s contention that the new courthouse, though larger, would merely replace the 1967-vintage courthouse across the street. Staffing, and therefore parking demand, are not expected to increase.

“It’s what we told them from the very beginning,” county facilities director Mark Thunberg said.

The City Council has scheduled a discussion about the courthouse at its meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. A vote on a parking agreement isn’t likely until a future meeting in September, council Vice President Scott Murphy said.

The collective change of heart among city leaders comes as the county explores alternative locations for the courthouse. They’re prepared to look outside of downtown Everett, including in other cities. The county issued a request for proposals and expected responses by this week.

With logistical options for transporting prisoners from the county jail in downtown Everett, moving the courthouse elsewhere is problematic. Everett’s business district also stands to lose the weekday influx of hundreds of county employees, attorneys and other courthouse visitors. Businesses that focus on providing legal services might choose to move away, too.

“All of us really want it in downtown Everett as part of the downtown core in the county seat,” Sullivan said.

Even so, “all of us are open to all options at this point,” he said.

Concerns with the existing courthouse include asbestos, earthquake readiness, security and a lack of facilities that are accessible to disabled patrons. There’s only one courthouse bathroom — on the fifth floor — that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, county court and facilities officials said. Upgrading courtrooms to be wheelchair accessible, as would be required for a major remodel, would take up much of the public seating areas.

The proposed courthouse is more than twice the size of the main courthouse building that’s now in use. The increase accommodates extra elevators, hallways and other areas that would allow court staff, the public and defendants to move about separately within the same building. As is, staff, crime victims and defendants often find themselves in uncomfortable proximity.

“No one who’s been involved in the issue for any length of time really disputes that we need a new building,” said Michael Downes, the presiding judge for Snohomish County Superior Court.

After spending so much time and thought planning the new building, Downes and others have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress.

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

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