A drawing shows a planned addition. (Heery International)

Council approves $74M renovation of courthouse

EVERETT — An overhaul of the aging Snohomish County courthouse could get started later this year, after elected leaders voted Wednesday to move ahead with a major renovation project.

The County Council voted 3-2 to approve the package recommended by County Executive Dave Somers. It comes with a $72 million price tag.

“The current courthouse needs repairs, so doing nothing is not a viable option,” said County Councilman Terry Ryan, who supported the plan.

The county’s justice building stands on Wall Street between Wetmore and Rockefeller avenues. It was built in 1967 and connects to the historic Mission building.

Serious efforts to replace or remodel the five-story with a basement courthouse have been ongoing for most of the past decade.

That includes a $162 million option to build an eight-story courthouse across the street, including on land acquired through eminent domain. That project was abandoned in 2015, a week before the scheduled groundbreaking, because of cost and parking concerns.

The plan that advanced Wednesday centers on $62.9 million in remodeling priorities. The main feature is a new five-story tower on the north side of the building with a ground-floor security screening area, modern elevators and restrooms. The cost would be paid with money remaining from $75 million in bonds that the county sold for courthouse improvements in 2013. The bonds are being paid back through a property-tax increase. Roughly $12 million has been spent on property and other work related to the abandoned project for a new courthouse, as well as work to prepare the renovation plan.

The courthouse remodel would add about 29,000 square feet, expanding the courthouse about 25 percent from its current size.

Troubles there include a layout that makes it hard to ensure security of employees and court users. The building needs more bracing to better withstand an earthquake. Its elevators frequently break down and are so old that some replacement parts have to be custom made.

The lone bathroom in the building that complies with federal laws for people with disabilities can only be reached by an elevator that doesn’t meet those same federal standards.

Council members also agreed to more than $9 million in additional work that went beyond the available courthouse bond money. It includes modernizing heating and air systems, courtroom audio-visual equipment and security features. That money would come from an existing tax on property transactions.

Somers said the work should extend the life of the courthouse another 50 years, though some maintenance and upgrades will be needed during that time.

County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said it was some of those future costs that gave him pause and led him to vote against the remodel. Sullivan said he isn’t opposed to the idea, but wanted more information.

“I wanted to feel more confident about the engineering and the numbers,” Sullivan said. “I might have voted for it had some of those questions been answered.”

Councilwoman Stephanie Wright also voted in opposition.

The county’s Superior Court bench had until recently favored waiting longer for a new building rather than renovating sooner. That changed after the latest plans from the county’s architect, Atlanta-based Heery International. Judge Michael Downes said he was “pleasantly surprised” at what the architect was able to accomplish within those plans, but said it might be optimistic to expect another 50 years of life from the building.

“I agree that the court situation is untenable and that it absolutely needs to be fixed,” Downes told the council.

Construction is likely to continue through mid-2020. Once work gets started, the county plans to move a veterans’ memorial on the courthouse plaza to a spot nearby.

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

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